22.03.2018 change 22.03.2018

Perform a task and stop snacking

We start snacking when self-control loses the battle with impulses. But there are ways to suppress automatic reactions to temptations. Dr. Łukasz Tanajewski from the Kozminski University investigates whether simple boards that you can make at home - and practice with them - can help eat sensibly.


It`s simple: food provides a pleasant taste experience, so it`s hard to resist temptation. But a healthy diet requires control of impulses and reflexes. Unfortunately - Dr. Tanajewski notes - when we choose between healthier and tastier products, our working memory is busy with other matters and tasks. Our attention is unfocused when we have to decide how much we are going to eat. That`s why it`s so hard to refrain from snacking while watching TV, browsing the internet or gaming. Or from trying another delicacy at a wedding party.

We need cognitive resources to inhibit impulses and focus attention on the choices we make. To what extent do we use these resources for food choices? Dr. Tanajewski wants to find out. The National Science Center awarded over PLN 568,000 from the Sonata programme for his research. Dr. Łukasz Tanajewski`s project is entitled "Cognitive resources and impulse control: a neuroeconomic approach".


Speaking about the dietary choices, Dr. Tanajewski draws attention to the paradox: "Increasing the working memory load while making a decision concerning nutrition choices may both lower your self-control and improve it". Is it possible to limit cognitive resources in working memory in order to turn our attention away from the taste of chocolates enough to refrain from eating them? Under what conditions and for what persons would it be possible?

The researcher points out that individual traits, experimental conditions and neuronal processes that enable these opposite effects have not been studied yet. We know that cognitive resources in working memory direct attention not only to the health effects of dietary choices, but also to their hedonistic consequences, namely pleasant taste sensations.

It turns out that it is easier to concentrate on the health of food products, if we have previously done another task that requires controlling automatic reactions. An example is a task with font colours. It uses the word "green" written with red font, the word "black" with green font, and the word "red" with black font. You can add a purple word "blue" and so on. The subject must only say the colour, in which the word is written, ignoring the content of the word. Attention required to complete such a task unrelated to food can be transferred to what you choose to eat right after the test.


Dr Tanajewski wants to check whether it is possible to improve impulse control in an nutritional choice by inducing attention in another task that requires impulse inhibition. To this end, he will carry out a series of surveys and behavioural and neuroimaging studies.

The researcher`s first step will be to check when we stop controlling our impulses. Individual traits of people participating in experiments will be analysed. Surveys and psychological tests will allow to assess impulsiveness, sensitivity to taste sensations during food consumption, self-control as a trait, and a tendency to avoid cognitive effort. Experimental conditions conducive to losing self-control and focusing attention will also be assessed. The study is designed to determine the neural mechanisms that should not be manipulated, because if the cognitive resources in working memory are limited, it will decrease self-control. In the second step, the researcher will determine whether and how prior activation of cognitive resources through a different task can improve impulse control.

Dr. Tanajewski will conduct behavioural experiments - he will "manipulate" the natural reactions and behaviours of the subjects. In the first experiment he will present attractive photos, so-called distractors, visual "obstacles". This will reduce cognitive resources in working memory. The second experiment will resemble the above exercise with font colours. This part of the experiment is expected to affect "control readiness".

"We will load the memory by asking the participants to remember a complex set of dots displayed on a computer screen. We will also check how the experimental conditions (the presentation of dietary choices) and individual traits (sensitivity to taste sensations) affect the effects of the above manipulations" - describes Dr. Tanajewski.

The participants` brains will then be scanned (by neuroimaging) while making food choices while performing other tasks. This will allow to identify and understand the neural processes behind the observed effects. Researchers will image the brain structures of the subjects and check the link between the volume of grey matter in specific areas of the brain and the individual traits and self-control observed in experiments.

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