Mind Over Matter
When it comes to urges, "just say no" doesn't always work. Consider the Stroop effect, a standard experiment in psychology that asks subjects to quickly read aloud the color of words, such as "red," when printed in a different color ink, like blue. No problem, right? Wrong.
The instant the subject's eye travels over the word "red," the brain registers conflict. It's the powerful urge to read the word rather than state the color that interests SF State Psychology Professor Ezequiel Morsella, whose Action and Consciousness Laboratory explores the nature of conscious action and its implications in addressing disorders of self-control, such as addiction.
While the Stroop effect -- which has been used to study everything from anorexia to schizophrenia -- is a benign phenomenon compared to more detrimental urges, or "hot conflicts" such as taking drugs, the nature of how the conscious and unconscious mind work together to address these urges is surprisingly similar.
"For obvious reasons, we can't induce these kinds of hot conflicts in a laboratory setting," explains Morsella, who is collaborating with University of California, San Francisco's (UCSF) Department of Neurology to isolate the regions in the brain that relate to conflict and self-control. "We have to look at more innocuous forms of action conflicts, like the Stroop task, that share a similar origin. By studying how you get any urge, you can find ways to eradicate harmful urges."
It's not the first time Morsella has investigated the science of consciousness. At Yale, where he recently completed his postdoctoral training, he conducted studies on conscious urges, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the neural correlates -- the active regions in the brain -- associated with conscious aspects of self-control.
At SF State, Morsella is taking his research one step further. Subjects in his lab, a mix of student volunteers and paid participants, are conducting experiments that focus on weakening conscious urges. How, and by what means, is currently "hush-hush," says Morsella, but once perfected, the experiments will be tested using fMRI scanners at UCSF. "This is basic neuroscience research, but it will provide a greater understanding of the nature of self-control. After all, you really can't fix something until you know how it works."
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