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Self Discipline, as defined in this meagre Wikipedia article as being

as the ability to motivate oneself in spite of a negative emotion

This is partly distinct from self control and willpower which from Wikipedia, is defined as

the ability to control one's emotions, behavior, and desires in order to obtain some reward, or avoid some punishment.

I am referring to the former, where there may not necessarily be a reward or punishment involved. I am interested in the neurological basis of self discipline, specifically, are there more primitive areas of the brain at play in trying to defeat our self-discipline that are in turn, inhibited by the frontal cortex or other parts of the brain?

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1 Answer 1

From a purely psychological and physiological standpoint without considering what desires are chosen by a society's norms and the like:

Functional imaging of the brain has shown that self-control is correlated with an area in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), a part of the frontal lobe. This area is distinct from those involved in generating intentional actions, attention to intentions, or select between alternatives. This control occurs through the top-down inhibition of premotor cortex. There is some debate about the mechanism of self-control and how it emerges. Traditionally, researchers believed the bottom-up approach guided self-control behavior. The more time a person spends thinking about a rewarding stimulus, the more likely he or she will experience a desire for it. Information that is most important gains control of working memory, and can then be processed through a top-down mechanism. Increasing evidence suggests that top down processing plays a strong role in self-control. Specifically, top-down processing can actually regulate bottom-up attentional mechanisms. To demonstrate this, researchers studied working memory and distraction by presenting participants with neutral or negative pictures and then a math problem or no task. They found that participants reported less negative moods after solving the math problem compared to the no task group, which was due to an influence on working memory capacity. -wikipedia

But indeed you already knew that, so moving forward, temptation interferes with self control. Temptation is sometimes based on pleasure or power. Therefore the pleasure centers of the brain (such as the nucleus accumbens, ventral pallidum, orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) may sometimes act in opposition to the frontal cortex.

But that's not all:

Self-regulatory failure is a core feature of many social and mental health problems. Self-regulation can be undermined by failures to transcend overwhelming temptations, negative moods and resource depletion, and when minor lapses in self-control snowball into self-regulatory collapse. Cognitive neuroscience research suggests that successful self-regulation is dependent on top-down control from the prefrontal cortex over subcortical regions involved in reward and emotion. We highlight recent neuroimaging research on self-regulatory failure, the findings of which support a balance model of self-regulation whereby self-regulatory failure occurs whenever the balance is tipped in favor of subcortical areas, either due to particularly strong impulses or when prefrontal function itself is impaired. Such a model is consistent with recent findings in the cognitive neuroscience of addictive behavior, emotion regulation and decision-making.

-Cognitive neuroscience of self-regulation failure

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Thank you, but your first quote is from the second link in my question. –  user4185 Jan 16 '14 at 4:43

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