Use your brain, don't hold it in

Exercising self-control depletes students' mental power, says a new study. Hannah Fearn reports

August 27, 2009

Tough situations in which students have to exert self-control, such as making a difficult decision or biting one's tongue in an argument with a partner, can reduce their ability to learn effectively, a conference has heard.

Research carried out at Ashridge Business School found that "ego depletion" - in which the brain is drained of the power to exert self-control - could affect mental performance, including in the academic domain.

Angela Whelan, client director in the Leading People Faculty at Ashridge, said: "As human beings, we have the capacity to make choices and override automatic responses. That is obviously part of learning."

This could include knuckling down to study despite a reluctance to do so - in the case of a typical student, for example, forgoing the attractions of daytime television.

This kind of mental activity, which can also include setting personal goals and planning, takes place in the "executive function" area of the brain, Ms Whelan said.

"Anything that requires any kind of willpower or self-control will take energy from that part of the brain. The self-regulatory function in our brain is a bit like an energy reserve, like a battery, a device with a limited amount of power," she explained.

"The implication is that when you have activities that require self-control, performance in a subsequent act of self-control is reduced - we have depleted the resource. You will have less energy to be able to override the impulse to respond."

The early findings of the unpublished research, which were presented last week at the Future of Learning conference at the business school, suggest that "self-regulatory learning", which involves understanding when to preserve mental energy and how to top it up, can help us prevent a "self-control failure", which could have a critical impact on learning.

Although ego depletion is not the same as fatigue, self-regulatory learning can enable students to boost their battery and continue to learn effectively after using up their resources. First, students must learn how to preserve and replenish energy levels.

"Self-regulation is about selfmanagement. Self-regulated learning is about helping people with strategies on how to maximise effectiveness," Ms Whelan said.

Teaching strategies should include rest breaks, regular rewards and food that will help boost the battery in the brain, she added.

"In terms of designing teaching and learning strategies, regular breaks are absolutely necessary, as is positive feedback and glucose, the brain fuel," she said.

The research into ego depletion and how it impacts on learning, as well as employees in the workplace, is continuing. "This is still in its infancy. In the past ten to 15 years there has been increasing interest and research into the issue," Ms Whelan said.

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