Must try harder…

Author:  Walter Mischel

marshmallow test cover (180x280)When it comes to will power – and everything else for that matter – the Internet has transformed the world.  Instantly accessible shopping, gambling, porn, games – whatever you want – require just a few clicks of a button without even obliging one to put on pants.  It’s amazing that anybody gets anything done.  And don’t forget about donuts.  How do we manage to control ourselves when so many temptations are always at our fingertips?  How can we get better at controlling our baser urges?  In The Marshmallow Test, internationally renowned psychologist Walter Mischel answers these questions and many more in a remarkable exploration of the human mind.

Based on his initial ground breaking research, which involved cleverly tantalizing hungry preschoolers with delicious marshmallows and cookies at Stanford in the 1960s, Mischel – now at Columbia – describes how even young children can figure out ways to resist temptation.  He presents plenty of evidence to support the idea that our brains serve as a battlefield where the hot, impulsive, easily tempted side of our personality frequently overwhelms our cool, deliberative, sensible side.  At some point in early childhood, this latter part of our character starts to develop and begins to gain (some) control, allowing children to gradually learn to behave themselves.  The author’s initial research in this area shows that a preschooler’s ability to resist the urge to gobble up marshmallows is remarkably predictive of future success in school and adult life.

Someone's left amygdala is highlighted on this MRI. It's the source of hot impulsivity, damn the consequences.

Someone’s left amygdala is highlighted on this MRI. It’s the source of hot impulsivity, damn the consequences.

Mischel goes on to discuss how teachers might try and help children learn to strengthen their will power, much as they learn to read or use algebra.  Presenting numerous examples of how this simple approach has yielded remarkable educational gains for children of many backgrounds, he makes a strong case for a significant overhaul of the American school system.  It’s not much of stretch to understand how adults can use this same idea to change their behaviors as well, helping them to abstain from cigarettes, alcohol or chocolate bismarks.

Full of all sorts of evidence based strategies to quell the all too natural impulse to give in to temptation, I found the book to be thoroughly entertaining and enlightening.  Mischel’s writing is both clear and energetic, making for fun reading despite the potentially dry and depressing topic.  While I have yet to gain complete monastic control of my every urge, the book reveals plenty of constructive ideas about how to get the most out of one’s brain.

Closing with a brief conversation with Cookie Monster, the poster child for hot impulsivity, The Marshmallow Test successfully explores many of the mysteries of the human mind.  Well written by an enthusiastic scientist, the book intrigues and inspires, effectively arguing that by better understanding ourselves we can make the world a better place.  After some cool deliberation, I can enthusiastically award it five out of five stars.

— D. Driftless

Other Readers Lane reviews about the human brain:

Waking Up   /   Thinking, Fast and Slow   /   Just Babies

Latest posts by dave (see all)