How do you exercise control over your own life?

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An interdisciplinary project developed by the Universidad de los Andes and the University of California, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, seeks to answer this question.

Every summer in the U.S.A., approximately thirty children die of hyperthermia after having inadvertently been left in the back of a car. More frequently, surgeons leave instruments in their patients’ bodies, parents leave the shop without taking the bottle of milk they just bought, or we leave our lunch at home.

Interestingly, we are not talking merely about a problem to do with memory but one involving self-control. This is related to what specialists call “vigilant control”: an aspect of self-control that consists in paying attention to the most important things for each person and regulating our behavior accordingly.

“Self-control can be understood as the general capacity to be in control of your own life. In other words, it is the ability that people have to make their lives similar to the one that they desire it to be”, states Santiago Amaya: professor in the Department of Philosophy in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Los Andes. He is leading a project to identify the challenges of self-control, and, due to the obstacles that exist, identifying the types of changes that we can make in our lives so that we have greater control of ourselves.

The researcher, who has a PhD in philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology from the University of Washington in St. Lewis explains that self-control is, on a daily basis, related to resisting certain types of impulses. For example, people who have a problem with alcohol or those who get carried away by their emotions are warned to either put up with the situation or control themselves. However, “vigilant control” goes further than this insofar as being in control of our lives involves pursuing and achieving multiple goals and objectives with a finite set of resources and time available.

Professor Amaya and Manuel R. Vargas, who is a professor in the University of California in San Diego, are seeking to create an academic community to address this topic and have developed 'Getting Better at Simple Things: understanding and improving vigilant control'. This project is supported by the Vice-Dean for Research’s Office at Los Andes and is one of the first in Latin America to be financed by the John Templeton Foundation.

Since 2017, to make this project a reality, they have brought together experts in philosophy, neuroscience, cognitive sciences, and law to study the different aspects of vigilant control. The group is comprised of researchers who are in different stages of their careers and who work in both North American and Latin American universities.

“Our objective is to create long-lasting research associations between academics from all parts of the Americas who work on different aspects of self-control”, says Amaya.

What are some of the activities that are associated with the project?

Between 2017-2019 different activities related to the project were and will be undertaken such as:

1. Expert conferences. High level guests share their knowledge and feed the discussion on self-control. In the second half of 2017, Los Andes was visited by Alfred R. Mele, professor of philosophy at Florida State University, who spoke about neuroscience, control, and freedom. Michael Inzlicht, a neuroscientist and psychologist from the University of Toronto also visited the university and spoke about the concept of effort.

In March 2018, the university received a visit from Michael S. Moore, who is one of the most important theoreticians in criminal law. Moore gave the lecture: “Mechanical choices: the responsibility of the human machine”.

In the second half of 2018, the university will be visited by two further researchers.

2. Workshop with national and international participants. The first took place in Bogotá on March 15th and 16th 2018 and there were visitors from different disciplines such as philosophy, neurology, neuroscience, and law. The academics who participated in the workshop included Robert Kurzban (psychology, University of Pennsylvania) and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (philosophy, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences).

A second workshop will take place during March 2019 in the U.S.A.

3. Interdisciplinary research seminar on topics relating to the project and open to local professors and postgraduate students studying biology, psychology, philosophy, and law.

4. Translation and style correction grant program for Latin American scientists or academics to have their papers published by the university publishing house or by recognized journals to have an impact on the English-speaking world.

5. Awards for pilot projects. Two awards will be awarded (USD$1,500 each) to scientists or academics who are affiliated with the project to write a project proposal for topics related to vigilance control, which will then be presented to a funding agency.

6. Student education. Two scholarships will be awarded to doctoral students or recently graduated doctoral students to work in areas related to the project.


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