Higher levels of self-control in decision making have been linked to better psychosocial and physical health. A similar link to health outcomes has been reported for heart rate variability (HRV), a marker of physiological flexibility. Here, we sought to link these two, largely separate, research domains by testing the hypothesis that greater HRV would be associated with better dietary self-control in humans. Specifically, we examined whether total HRV at sedentary rest (measured as the standard deviation of normal-to-normal intervals, SDNN) can serve as a biomarker for the neurophysiological adaptability that putatively underlies self-controlled behavior. We found that HRV explained a significant portion of the individual variability in dietary self-control, with individuals having higher HRV being better able to down-regulate their cravings in the face of taste temptations. Furthermore, HRV was associated with activity patterns in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), a key node in the brain's valuation and decision circuitry. Specifically, individuals with higher HRV showed both higher overall vmPFC BOLD activity and attenuated taste representations when presented with a dietary self-control challenge. Lastly, the behavioral and neural associations with HRV were consistent across both our stress induction and control experimental conditions. The stability of this association across experimental conditions suggests that HRV may serve as both a readily obtainable and robust biomarker for self-control ability across environmental contexts.
Self-control is associated with better health, but behavioral and psychometric self-control measures allow only indirect associations with health outcomes and may be distorted by reporting bias. We tested whether resting heart rate variability (HRV), a physiological indicator of psychological and physical health, can predict individual differences in dietary self-control in humans. We found that higher HRV was associated with better self-control and improved predictions of choice behavior. Specifically, higher HRV was associated with more effective down-regulation of taste temptations, and with a diminished neural representation of taste temptations during self-control challenges. Our results suggest that HRV may serve as an easily acquired, non-invasive and low-cost biomarker for self-control ability.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.