Willpower: An Evolutionary New Idea

Willpower ADHD treatment positive psychology
This playful illustration of the brains’ evolution comes from Dr. Dan Siegle clinical professor of psychology at UCLA!!

Not in the Content of Your Character…
Many, many people with ADHD have been accused of just plain lacking the character strength of willpower.  How many of these people have heard these words spoken through gritted teeth: “Just DO it”?

Here’s how willpower relates to ADHD:  It’s not in the character of the person, but in the brain.

…in the Structures of Your Brain

The willpower sections of the brain get short-circuited by anxiety.  And that’s true for everyone. But this short-circuit occurs even more frequently because of ADHD brain wiring.

In people with ADHD, the “channels” that send helpful brain hormones to brain’s willpower sections are constructed differently than those of “neurotypical” people.  The difference makes the willpower parts – attention, focus, and decision-making – pushed off-line, or “dysregulated” more easily.

The main culprit: stress hormones.  The main casualty: willpower.

Old Brain

The older brain, located in the brain stem and mid-brain, evolved in vertebrates and in mammals to support the prime directive, survival. It did’t have much use for wasting energy on decision-making or self-regulation.

To do this in the simplest, most energy-effective way, the older brain developed a bias toward paying attention to negative experiences.

The brain learns about dangerous things very quickly, and associates any similar sights, sounds, smells, or experiences with a powerful release of stress hormones (called “glucocorticoids”), whether or not the threat is any longer right at hand.

Dr. Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist, writes about this.  He notes that the “lizard brain” –the brain stem and limbic system – “…is very interested in self protection.  Its motto is: “Eat lunch, Don’t be lunch!”  This part of the brain gives us a powerful negative bias: rigid and anxious.”

The old brain was efficient at communicating with the whole body by releasing what became known as the “fight, flight, freeze, and play dead” hormones, sent forth from the mid-brain and brainstem!

New Brain
Willpower is a comparatively recent evolutionary development of the brain. It emerged along with the “neo-cortex,” or “the new brain.”  It added a very profound capacity to the survival prime directive: that of thinking and deciding: of choosing to do, or not to do.

Very recent research seems to strongly suggest that willpower resides in three distinct areas of this new brain: The Right Prefrontal Cortex, The Left Prefrontal Cortex, and that Anterior Cingulate Cortex.

willpower and adhd fight or flight old brain new brain
The 3 Aspects of Willpower. The right side is “I WON’T Power,” the Left is “I WILL Power,” and deeper in the brain, behind the forehead is “I WANT Power.”

The Prefrontal Cortex, (PFC), sends out brain hormones, or “neurotransmitters,” that help us think deep thoughts, be discerning, be decisive, focus and re-focus, plan for the future, recognize ourselves in time and space, filter out distractions, and many other functions grouped together as “higher order thinking skills.”

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, neuroscientist at Stanford University writes about this in The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It.  She calls these areas the centers for “I Won’t Power, I Will Power, and I Want Power.”

More about how this works, and what people with ADHD can do about it, next time.

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