A new study from Dartmouth College has found that the things we crave – from decadent food to sex – depend on the way our brains are wired, thus suggesting that giving into temptation has more to do with genetics than sheer will power.
Researchers studied 58 Dartmouth freshman females, 48 of whom returned six months later for a follow-up behavioral session. Participants underwent an fMRI session within the first month of arriving at college. To ensure a pure state of mind, the women were asked to refrain from eating, consuming alcohol or caffeine, or smoking for two hours prior to their session. Before the scan began, the freshmen were weighed, had their BMIs calculated, and then asked a set of questions to assess their current state of hunger and activity level.
The participants’ brains were then scanned while they were shown a variety of images, including animals, food, people drinking alcohol, people in sexual scenes, and environmental scenes.
The study sought to determine the differences in reward processing during simple viewing of food stimuli and sexual scenes. What it found was that the participants who reacted strongly to the food images had gained more weight when they returned six months later. And that those who reacted strongly to the sexual images were more likely to have had sex and report stronger sexual desire.
And furthermore, there was no crossover between the two. Participants who responded more to sexual cues did not have noticeable responses to food, and vice versa.
One of the study’s authors, William Kelley – an associate professor at Dartmouth’s department of psychological and brain sciences – said the data showed that the stimulation of a particular brain region seemed to strongly predict or alter behavior, suggesting that the more heightened a response to a stimulus (whether food- or sex-related), the less able we are to recognize our rational brain telling us ‘no.’
But just because we’re wired to respond one way or the other, doesn’t mean we’re stuck that way permanently. There are things we can do to to help reverse these tendencies. As suggested by the authors, options may could include undergoing behavioral therapy, or doing something as simple as replacing cravings with a healthier habit, such as going for a walk when we’re craving ice cream.