Impulsivity and compulsivity play a large role in neuropsychiatric research as they underpin many mental health disorders. Unfortunately, impulsive and compulsive thoughts and behaviours are also commonly observed throughout the festive period! Impulsivity is a natural tendency found in all animals that enables the quick avoidance of danger or threat without too much forethought. However, when impulsivity becomes excessive it can be harmful to us and to others. Compulsivity on the other hand, is not a natural tendency. Instead, it is a maladaptive coping strategy or repetitive behaviour that we learn as a habit to help lesson tension or dampen negative emotions. And whereas impulsivity is often related to craving and addictive behaviours – or even violent crime – compulsivity reflects something we do repetitively that we have learned to associate with reward. Usually animals and humans only repeat a behaviour if it was previously pleasurable, or reduced discomfort. By considering the brain processes of impulsivity and compulsivity during the festive period, we might be able to improve our behaviour, control our thoughts, and return to a better sense of peace and goodwill for all!
The tendency to crave and consume (e.g. buy) new products on offer in the shops, especially during the festive season, is an impulsive trait. Most of us do not need another new gadget, a larger TV, or a new pair of shoes. Yet, we might have that uncontrollable, impulsive urge – aroused by the media – to go out and splurge our last remaining credit on an already over-burdened store or credit card. We know we shouldn’t, and we know we want, not need. But some of us just cannot help the urge to buy more and more stuff over the festive period – and beyond! This is especially true when peer pressure forces us to demonstrate our elevated social status. We would rather avoid our friends, families and co-workers looking down on us! The negative feelings that come with the sense that without the latest gadgets or clothes we are not good enough, can – we have learned – be easily improved with a quick trip to the shops! And while the craving aspect of buying new things is impulsive, the repetitive trips to the shops that become a habit, are learned and compulsive. Compulsivity means repeating something over and over – even when it is detrimental (like spending credit when you haven’t got the cash) – to the point where it is difficult to stop.
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Neuroscientists have been able to pinpoint some of the brain processes involved in the difference between impulsivity – acting inappropriately withouth much forethought – and compulsivity – repetitive, habitual responses despite adverse consequences. Areas of the midbrain are typically over-active when we feel impulsive, including the amygdala, striatum and insular cortex. Interestingly, these brain areas can sometimes be over-active in people who abuse drugs, gamble, overeat or who engage in promiscious sexual practices. So one could say that the impulse to spend more and more money in the shops is a bit like an addiction that has become uncontrollable. Conversely, when we act compulsively, our prefrontal cortex is overrun with thoughts about our habit, be it shopping, dieting, cleaning, or even something healthy like a sport, hobby or occupation. When we develop a compulsion, such as spending too much money in the shops on items we probably don’t need, we are unable to delay the powerful sense that the immediate reward is much better than a later reward (e.g. saving one’s money for the future). And usually, after some time has passed after the compulsive shopping, an overwhelming sense of guilt, anxiety and negative emotions flood the mind. Then, the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate – midway towards the front of the prefrontal cortex – becomes activated to try to stop the conflict in the mind between feeling pleasure from shopping, and feeling guilty about spending too much money. But the brain doesn’t like to feel guilty or anxious for long. Instead, it tries to find a quick fix to feel better again! And the impulse to spend rears its ugly head quite soon, as we have been taught by an ever-stimulating media that it is good to keep on buying things!
But like an addict – and people who frantically search for the latest sought-after item – our impulses and learned compulses never satisfy us for long. We are simply led deeper and deeper down a spiral of alternating brief periods of reward and despair. Neuroscientists specialising in addiction processes understand that it is very difficult – but not impossible – to rise up from the depths of this spiral. When people hit trock-bottom they may have spent all of their money, stolen precious items from their families and friends, damaged relationships, amassed huge amounts of debt, become obese, and perhaps also damaged their health. But, despite being at rock-bottom, there is a ladder out. Neuroscientists using Pavlovian behaviourism as a guide, understand that over time habits can be extinguished, and new, healthier habits can be learned in their place.
Dr. Samantha Brooks is a Reader of Cognitive Neuroscience in the School of Psychology, Faculty of Health, Liverpool John Moores University, UK, and a Chartered member of the British Psychological Society. Her research specialises in the neural mechanisms of impulse control in various psychiatric conditions (e.g. addiction, eating disorders). Previously, Dr Brooks worked as a lecturer for six years at the University of Cape Town, South Africa and co-led the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Group. Before working in South Africa, she completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Uppsala University, Sweden, where Dr Brooks continues to collaborate on projects examining the brain processes underlying eating disorders and adolescent-onset mental health disorders. She gained her Ph.D. at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, where she learned clinical neuroimaging techniques, such as structural and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Dr Brooks has published book chapters and over 100 papers to date in high impact journals with a current H Index of 42, continuing to present her work at international conferences. Her research on impulse control in eating disorders and addiction has so far attracted over 1 million Euros in international funding and collaborations with international experts in the field.