Memory and self-control are both immensely important to humans. It’s clear that both memory and self-control are functions of the brain, but new research into the relationship between these two functions has revealed a strong overlap. Duke University researchers have discovered that exercising willpower to practice self-control impairs the overall memory capability of the brain. In other words, self-control saps memory resources and vice versa. Why can’t these functions coexist at high levels? Both self-control and memory share brain mechanisms and structures, so an increase in one function can potentially decrease the other.

The psychological implications of self-control have been the focus of many scientific studies and experiments over the years. One hallmark example of psychological experimentation is the Stanford “Marshmallow test,” which was a study on delayed gratification. In summary, the experiment found that there is a direct correlation between self-control and relative success in life. Recently, a Duke study on psychological self-control has yielded interesting results. Instead of marshmallows, the researchers at Duke used a go/no-go test to measure relative self-control ability.  If the cue presented to the test subjects was“go”, the subject was supposed to press a button, but if the cue was for “no go,” then they were supposed to exercise self-control and refrain from pressing the button. Interestingly, the researchers noticed that the subjects had a much better recognition memory of the “go” cue as opposed to the “no-go” cue. MRI brain imaging also confirmed a difference in brain memory activity during the “no-go” cue. What does this all mean? It means that response inhibition is actually impairing memory function. The researchers concluded that this was a result of overlapping brain systems for the two functions. Because these two processes share fundamental neural resources, a sharp increase in one function impeded the other.  

the connection between memory and self-control may be related to conditions like ADHD..

Why does this matter? The implications for this discovery have not fully been explored yet, but the connection between memory and self-control may be related to conditions like ADHD. Studies have shown that people with ADHD tend to have better memory when they fidget. In other words, the lack of mental self-control is correlated to higher memory capability to some degree. Further study of the relationships of these brain functions can help us better understand how the brain operates and can even yield potential insights into neurological conditions.

Teja Ravivarapu is a sophomore from Sid Richardson College at Rice University.


1. Chiu, Y. -C. & Egner, T. (2015). Inhibition-Induced Forgetting Results from Resource Competition between Response Inhibition and Memory Encoding Processes. J. Neurosci., 35: 11936-45.

2. Chiu, Y. -C. & Egner, T. (2015). Inhibition-Induced Forgetting: When More Control Leads to Less Memory. Psych. Sci., 26: 27-38.

3. Mischel, W. & Ebbesen, E. B. (1970). Attention in delay of gratification. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 16: 329-37.