One of the defining characteristics of human beings is that they are an animal endowed with the ability to reason about their emotional impulses, imposing “reason” as the basis on which their actions are based in the world unfolding before them. This is why we like to think of ourselves as a “rational animal”.
It would draw a differential line with the rest of the creatures that inhabit the earth, often understood (but not always that way) as slaves to instinct and the need to survive, feeling like something independent and different from the fabric. which makes up the nature inherent in all living things.
The really true thing, despite this widely held belief, is that we don’t always act rationally or meditatively; but on many occasions we allow ourselves to be carried away by the flow of our most primitive instincts. There are even people who, in fact, react that way in almost any situation.
In this article, we will specifically address the issue of impulsivityBoth the way it is defined and its possible causes and neurological roots, because it is a trait that conceals a certain mystery and conditions the life of those who present it and of its environment.
What is impulsivity?
Impulsivity is a complex concept, which has tried to be clearly defined on several occasions, but for which there is still no clear consensus. The most common is that we use a succession of determining traits, which are presented together in what is said to be impulsive, but which do not reach the descriptive level necessary to convince the entire scientific community. In this way, attributes such as “brash”, “thoughtless” or “hasty” would be used.
Another difficulty in delimiting its nature lies in the fact that this symptom usually manifests against the background of other mental disorders, And rarely in isolation. It is common to present with borderline personality disorder (thoughtless behavior), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (rushing and interrupting), gambling disorder (overwhelming urge to gamble), or impaired functioning. binge eating (voracious and uncontrollable overeating).).
On another side, it is also a risk factor in many other mental health problems; such as drug abuse and / or conduct disorders during childhood; and this is one of the most important reasons why some people abandon the psychological approach or other forms of intervention. Thus, it is diluted with many other physical and mental alterations, making it difficult to distinguish which ones can be attributed to it from those which are not.
Some researchers have attempted to classify the different ways of expressing impulsivity, so that it seems to define a certain degree of agreement on three fundamental dimensions: cognitive (haste in the decision-making process), motor (development of an action devoid of any prior thought process) and / or unplanned (total lack of consideration of the future when carrying out an action). In any case, there is a risk of very negative consequences for the person or for third parties.
On the whole, an attempt at conceptualization involves the enumeration of phrases that distinguish it as an independent entity. The most essential will be detailed below.
1. Difficulty delaying reward and striving for immediacy
Impulsivity is characterized by problems with stopping impulses, that is, inhibit behaviors even if a potential negative consequence is estimated. This process takes place in the face of various appetite stimuli, deemed desirable, although the wait may result in an increase in the intensity or amount of the chosen reward. Primacy, therefore, in the way we conduct the multiple aspects of life. It is also one of the common causes of interpersonal violence.
2. No consideration of options or risks, and lack of planning
Impulsivity is geared only to the present moment, so that the person holding it does not weigh the consequences of the actions on the future. He also fails to come up with structured plans for how to deal with a fact that precipitates a difficult emotional response, but chooses to deal with the situation head-on without anticipating how it will develop or any contingencies or contingencies that may match. with that they are prevented from orchestrating a congruent and satisfying life plan.
3. Urgency to act
Impulsivity can also be expressed as a constraint on stress, making it impossible to maintain the tension that builds up in the event of inhibitory action. All impulse control disorders have the common axis of this ’emergency’, so the ‘charge’ would only resolve when it gave in to driving driving (like a forest fire to arsonism. or make a new bet in pathological gambling), which it ends up maintaining the basic problem over the years due to negative reinforcement.
4. Search for sensations
Another characteristic that is constantly associated with impulsivity is the need for new stimuli, which is expressed in the search for experiences that can even compromise physical or emotional integrity.
Thus, situations such as drug addiction or unprotected sexual activity may arise immediate pleasure predominates to the detriment of any guarantee of minimum security. As a result of all this, boredom very often arises when life becomes too regular, thus a very difficult sensation to tolerate and manage.
5. Bad perseverance
The consequence of impulsiveness is that when faced with any error or failure resulting from their own hasty action, the person feels incapable of continuing to strive to turn the situation around. This fact is associated with difficulty tolerating frustration, which is experienced as a difficult stimulus which is processed in an accelerated manner by active escape behavior. So, this abandonment is nothing more than a new expression of impulsiveness in the face of the emotional tension of mistakes.
6. Emotional regulation issues
Impulsivity is also manifested by the difficulty of regulating emotions, that is, of exerting deliberate control over them that prevents their frantic eruption into everyday life. Emotional regulation requires internal spaces designed to observe in detail what is happening inside, To be able to accept it and to channel itself in the form of behaviors having a certain adaptive value. When this is not the case, the emotion can become unbearable in its intensity or frequency, and precipitate events that end up making the problem worse.
The influence of education
Impulsivity in children and adolescents has always been associated with a number of social factors, particularly related to the environment in which they spend the most time of their lives: the family. And there is evidence that certain parenting patterns, or even particular episodes of relationship violence, can consistently shape how a person learns to regulate what is going on within them.
Situations of physical, psychological and sexual abuse increase the risk that children and adolescents will develop disruptive or antisocial behaviors over the years, in which impulsivity becomes a cardinal trait. They can also be the consequence of parental care in which coercion, threat and emotional outbursts of an unpredictable nature are so frequent that the child is unable to foresee his future and the consequences of his actions; select impulsiveness as a form of adaptation.
As we can see, impulsiveness it is a trait that can be learned in the family, especially when disorganization prevails and the child or adolescent cannot develop more cohesive habits, through which he learns to manage efficiently the resources at its disposal (temporary, material, etc.). Similarly, these families may not notice the importance of prosocial behaviors, ignoring their relevant reinforcement and preventing their consolidation into the child’s inheritance (basic behavioral repertoire).
All of this is especially important as impulsivity can have profoundly negative consequences on a person’s life in the short and long term. Thus, it would be associated with the use of drugs in adulthood, the diagnosis of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), a low level of education, precarious access to the labor market, a poor perception of income. for the activity carried out and even at the risk of engaging in criminal conduct or residing in socially disadvantaged areas.
These latter consequences, in general, cannot be explained only by the fact that they are impulsive, but also depend on the additional problems that usually coexist with them (such as those described in one of the preceding paragraphs).
Its neurological basis in the brain
Impulsivity cannot be understood, as inferred from all that has been pointed out, as isolated conduct; but rather in the light of a tendency to act quickly and without any meditation, in order to resolve a situation (external demand) or an emotion (feeling difficult to manage). All of this can be best understood when studying the brain activity of those who generally react in this way, as there is evidence for peculiarities in a set of neurological structures associated with impulsivity, What we are describing.
One of the most important, without a doubt, is in the prefrontal cortex; where multiple structural and functional differences were observed between impulsive subjects and those who were not. This domain is one of the main structures involved in reasoning about our own actions, as well as in planning and inhibiting unwanted behaviors or thoughts. At present, it is known that the damage in the same motivates changes in the personality, or even explodes pseudodepressive and pseudopsicopáticos symptoms.
Within the same prefrontal cortex, which brings together many other structures with differentiated functions, the orbitofrontal cortex plays a special role in terms of impulsivity. More specifically, it moderates the relationship between emotional responses and motor acts, dealing with the influence of the amygdala (the area that processes emotional experience) and the prefrontal cortex (where any responses that are elicited or inhibited can to be detached from their own affections). Thus, it acts to “stop” or “allow” our actions in the face of a precipitating stimulus.
This connection is made by the role played by two well-known neurotransmitters: serotonin and dopamine. These are responsible for establishing the communication channel between the amygdala (limbic area and located in the depths of the brain) and the prefrontal cortex (the most recent area from an evolutionary point of view and located in the anterior region parenchyma); by means of independent routes for each of the same, although in recent years it has been possible to corroborate that they interact by inhibiting the other.
Low serotonin levels have generally been observed to be associated with increased impulsivity; including participation in risky activities, acts of heteroaggression, self-harm, suicide and a subjective feeling of lax self-control Dopamine, by speculation, is linked to impulsivity in its excess ; since increasing its availability in cleft synaptic links with the immediate search for reinforcements. All of this contributes to the basic traits of impulsivity, as described throughout this article.
In short, impulsivity is a very complex phenomenon, both in its clinical expression and in its etiology (social, biological and psychological). So much so that it is therefore difficult to conceptually delimit its reality. There is a need for further research on the issue in the future, as it will be the most effective treatment to reduce its impact on the lives of those who live with or on its immediate environment.
- Bakhshani, New Mexico (2014). Impulsivity: predisposition to risky behavior. International Journal of High-Risk Behaviors and Addictions, 3, e20428. doi: 10.5812 / ijhrba.20428.
- Neto, R. and True, M. (2011). The development and treatment of impulsivity. Psico, 42 years old, 134 years old.