The Origins of Impulse

Have you ever been going about your day when suddenly it feels as if a switch has been flipped and some impulsive behavior kicks in?  You’re not alone.  We’ve all struggled to manage our impulses at times.  It can often feel like the impulse is just happening to us, but the root of our impulses and how we control – or can’t control! – them runs deep.  

Impulse control distinguishes us from other animals.  It lives in our prefrontal cortex, a part of the frontal lobe of our brain, which holds our ability to make decisions as well as our language skills, motor functions and problem solving capabilities.  Research has shown that people who are less able to control their impulses frequently have less prefrontal cortex activity.  Why is this?

The short answer: it’s an adaptation to compensate for deprivation in childhood.  At birth the brain is a neuronal entity just waiting for stimulation.  If a child is being engaged with language, touch and emotional connection, the jumble of neurons and loose neural ends will, like train tracks, begin to forge a pathway as they age.  This process, called myelination, is key to the development of a healthy, prefrontal cortex, and a well-developed prefrontal cortex means better impulse control.  

Conversely, if a child experiences deprivation early in life – constantly living in fear in their home, lacking an attachment to their caretaker or not getting their basic needs met – important neuronal connections are never made.  That child’s parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight or flight impulse, will be offline, and they will struggle with impulsivity. As a result, they will compensate for their stress, fear and neglect by latching on to any form of satisfaction that they can find, acting on impulse to ease their fear of persistent deprivation.  

It’s important to provide a child with a surplus of touch, cognitive engagement, emotional connection and the basic resources to live, and not just to save that child from struggles with impulse control later in life.  The ability to overcome impulsive thought or behavior at an early age can be a predictor of future well-being, as Stanford University’s “Marshmallow Experiment” famously found.  Children who are able to delay gratification are more successful as adults in a wide array of indicators, including physical and mental health, educational achievement and social well-being.  

The good news is that parents can provide their children with a surplus simply by responding to their child’s physical and emotional needs and providing an environment in which there is a reciprocity of talk and touch.  Not much is needed to establish a good bond beyond being receptive and interactive with a developing child.  

For those who experienced deprivation in childhood and now find themselves struggling with impulse control in adulthood, the first step to overcoming the problem is awareness.  Working with a therapist to let go of the fear of deprivation, and to identify, evaluate and express one’s needs can also be quite helpful.  

Impulsivity, at its core, is a survival instinct.  This is what makes our impulses so strong and hard to shake.  But if we look deep enough and put in the work, we can recognize that we do indeed have control and choice in the moment when the impulse strikes and we can overcome it.

Written by Kate Kolendo for The Positive Mind


Carina Coderis