Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I'm Fat Because My Brain Is Overworked

NPR reported this week on "Willpower and the 'Slacker' Brain From the website (but please go and take the 7 minutes to listen to the story- good stuff): In his book How We Decide, and in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Jonah writes about an experiment by Stanford University professor Baba Shiv, who collected several dozen undergraduates and divided them into two groups. In the WSJ article, Jonah writes: "One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad." And then he writes: "Here's where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Professor Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain — they were a "cognitive load" — making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation." It turns out, Jonah explains, that the part of our brain that is most reasonable, rational and do-the-right-thing is easily toppled by the pull of raw sensual appetite, the lure of sweet. Knowing something is the right thing to do takes work — brain work — and our brains aren't always up to that. The experiment, after all, tells us brains can't even hold more than seven numbers at a time. Add five extra digits, and good sense tiptoes out of your head, and in comes the cake. "This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we're more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat one too many slices of leftover pizza," Lehrer writes. ******** Take a moment to hop over to the WSJ article: Blame It On the Brain Willpower, like a bicep, can only exert itself so long before it gives out; it's an extremely limited mental resource. Some simple tricks can help. The first step is self-awareness: The only way to fix willpower flaws is to know about them. Only then can the right mental muscles get strengthened, making it easier to succeed at our annual ritual of self-improvement. The brain area largely responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is located just behind the forehead. While this bit of tissue has greatly expanded during human evolution, it probably hasn't expanded enough. That's because the prefrontal cortex has many other things to worry about besides New Year's resolutions. For instance, scientists have discovered that this chunk of cortex is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. Asking it to lose weight is often asking it to do one thing too many. In another experiment, Mr. Baumeister and his colleagues gave students an arduous attention task—they had to watch a boring video while ignoring words at the bottom of the screen—before asking them to drink a glass of lemonade. Half of the students got lemonade with real sugar, while the other half got a drink with Splenda. On a series of subsequent tests of self-control, the group given fake sugar performed consistently worse. The scientists argue that their lack of discipline was caused by a lack of energy, which hampered the performance of the prefrontal cortex. For instance, Prof. Mischel has found that four-year-old children who are better at resisting the allure of eating a marshmallow—they get a second marshmallow if they can wait for 20 minutes—are the ones who sing songs, play with their shoelaces or pretend the marshmallow is a cloud. In other words, they're able to temporarily clear the temptation out of consciousness. (Prof. Mischel has also shown that these "high delayers" go on to get higher SAT scores and have lower body-mass indexes as adults.) Because they know that willpower is weak, they excel at controlling the spotlight of attention: When faced with candy, they stare at the carrots. ******** I have to say... I take some comfort in this research, in these reports. My willpower is often lacking. I easily give in and have struggled with labeling myself an emotional eater- I've never felt that my weight gain is a result of eating to stuff emotions or soothe emotions. Yes, food and emotions are certainly interlaced very tightly for me- as for lots of people. But in periods of stress, I tend to turn away from food instead of toward it. And when I do turn to food for comfort, I do so very knowingly. But I'm a busy mommy. I have so many people I attend to, so many tasks I take on. I know my limits and I say "no" when I need to and I only do things that I want to do. But my job requires a lot of problem solving, putting out fires, follow up. I have things to do each day when I come in and I leave with a list of things to start back on the next day. But if my brain is truly on overload... it makes sense that my house isn't as clean or organized as I'd like. It makes sense that I struggle with making good food choices or choosing to be physically active. According to the article, distraction is the key. It isn't about the willpower to make the right choice or the willpower to not pick up the "bad" food... it's about finding a distraction- finding something else to focus on. I struggled at the gym today. Christy and I opted to do the offered group "boot camp" class. It's more of just a group class- lunges, squats, wall sits, cardio, core work. Just constant activity for 30 minutes and more challenging than just walking on the treadmill. I did better than I thought I would but was also surprisingly... ashamed... to be exercising with 3 very healthy people. We kept up with them. But I felt like I was certainly struggling by the end more than the others. Distraction at the gym? What can I do to distract myself when I'm struggling to keep going, to push harder, to do more? I had a great elliptical (that super duper version with the arm things and the up down back and forth motion for the legs) workout one day when I just plugged in my Zen and watched half of a Doctor Who episode for the entire workout. Distraction. Is it possible that I could distract myself from ice cream by staring at grapefruit? Can I distract myself from a second helping by getting online and checking some blogs? I've got a lot of thinking to do on this subject. Not too much, obviously, because I don't want to go into immediate muscle failure. ******** Progress Report: It's been 3 weeks since I posted my I'm Fat Susan post. The first week, I was in an awesome place. I was working out at the gym, I was on the Wii Fit Plus at home, I was making good eating choices. I was excited about getting back to "normal." Then that blood showed up in Zach's urine. I was derailed. The second week, I have no idea what I ate or how active I was. I know that it simply wasn't a priority. I'm clearing my head from all of that and working on getting back on track. I'm struggling, to be honest. But I'm going to try and stay distracted... Update on Zach: Urine and blood work came back "negative." Which means normal. Which means we go in for surgery / procedure / scope on Feb 9. They knock him out. They do a scope up through his penis and look for things to be growing wrong, too small, too big, abnormalities. They fix what they find. Outpatient procedure. Had a huge rant with the nurse who handled our test results... I had called Friday because I hadn't heard anything. She looked into it, called me back and left me a voice mail. "I have Zach's results. They came back negative. I'll put these on Dr's desk to review on Monday morning." That was IT. I don't even know what all they tested for or looked at. I didn't know exactly what negative meant- it's a result that has different meanings for different tests. I waited until Monday afternoon for more information. The thing with dealing with this very large specialty practice is that everything is compartmentalized. I had to leave a voicemail for the same nurse to get information on the test results. And when she called me back- she gave ME attitude because I didn't correctly understand her message! And the kicker? Our triage nurse to our old urologist- the one who is a mom at our daycare- also didn't know what we meant when we were told it was "negative." Several nurse friends have been unhappy with how that whole thing was handled. /rant ******** Just typing out those 2 updates is shedding some light on why my brain might be so overloaded. That's just 2 of the things that are priorities- or that I am trying to make priorities. I haven't even scratched the surface... disorganized and messy house, kindergarten for Teagan, finances and tight budget, when to move Zach to preschool, potty training, my aging doggie, Haiti, things at church, and don't forget the brain function required by my job! There is just a lot I'm passionate about, a lot that is important to me. I'm surprised I don't weigh a full ton!! And those are just a few current things requiring concentration these days... I've got plenty more... My poor little prefrontal cortex simply can't stand all the information I'm loading in.


Karen M. Peterson said...

It does make a lot of sense. I'm sure that's my problem too. I mean, It's the end of January and I'm not going to have a free weekend until March. Way too much going on in my life.

I hope Zach's doing okay! I mean, it's good news that the test was negative, but still frustrating not to know what's going on.

Alison said...

I haven't written a new post in a while, but it looks like you've done it for me! :) Aside from the Mommy stuff, I know exactly how you feel. (Except I haven't even attempted to work in exercise.) On top of unavoidable stressors, I think we're just tired of trying to be perfect all the time!

Garret said...

I realize it's "easy" for me to say this but quit using excuses for your weight/diet. Food can be a reward - I worked hard today, I deserve this. It can also be a crutch - I need this donut, it's been stressful. Stop finding an excuse to eat and instead find an excuse to be healthy. Be healthy for the kids. Plan to get in shape so that you'll feel better. There's so many reasons. Girl, get your head out of your ass - you have no pity from me.

Don't get me started on doctors/nurses. I went to the doctor in August and paid as non-insured for in-office cholesterol blood work. This week I got a bill from the lab. They tried putting it through insurance that doesn't exist. UGH!

As far as Zach, I certainly hope this is the last stop. They go in, they find the problem, they fix him up. Your family will be in my thoughts.

Eternal Lizdom said...

Not looking for pity.

My head isn't up my ass.

I read an interesting couple of articles and wanted to share.

If it was as easy as just "being healthy for the kids" or "planning to get in shape," we'd all be fit, strong, and healthy, wouldn't we? If I could program myself like a computer, life would be easy, wouldn't it? But it doesn't work that way.

And I'm betting that there are plenty of people who read what I share about my struggles- be it about parenting or weight loss or anything else- and they relate. The only thing I "sell" is honesty. I will take a slice of my life, my issues, my triumphs, my whatever and share it as honestly as I can. It helps me and it helps others- in many different ways.

Garret said...

I was trying to be a motivator, a rock. I guess I should keep my day job... Oh, I don't have one of those. Besides, all the crap I spewed off to you, I don't even listen to. :-)


Eternal Lizdom said...

You are a motivator, Garret! I won't say I had a favorable reaction to your comment... but I'm not mad at you or anything.

Now you've got me thinking about excuses... might have a post on that one coming up in the next few weeks...

michelle said...

This seems to have made an impact on a lot of listeners. Ms. Moon posted about the same interview today. Will have to go listen. I love this stuff.

Nancy C said...

You and Ms. Moon are clearly two smart ladies. I completely understand this, as I get testy and desirous of chips whenever my to-do list seems longer than I can handle.

We just finished our urology surgery. Not fun, but you'll be covered with prayer and will be protected.

Katherine said...

Well, this makes sense to me. Maybe this is why I can't lose the weight. Between my 50-80 hours a week job, my two boys, my brain just doesn't have any more energy to make good decisions.

Hope everything goes okay with Zach.

Ms. Moon said...

Yep. We are certainly on the same brain-wave today. Not only did we blog about the same thing but in a conversation with a friend today we were discussing how horribly doctor's offices deal with passing information on. For example: I once got a call from a nurse about my pap smear. We all know what that means. And of course, by the time I got the message and called back, she was gone. For two days. And no one else could answer my questions. When I FINALLY got her on the phone, she informed me that although my pap was normal, they could see signs of aging in my cells. Hellfire! I was fifty-four years old and have had four kids. Why wouldn't I? And then she proceeded to tell me that if I was having problems (what-like with lubrication?) they could prescribe medications (hormones?) to help.
You know, I thought I was dying of cervical cancer, but no, I just have an aging va-jay-jay.
Okay. I'll calm down.
I am sending good thoughts to your son and all will be well, I am sure.

Claudya Martinez said...

Okay, I found the first part of this post fascinating and it really resonated with me.

You have so many things going on right now, I'm sorry that some of them are so stressful. The nurse you dealt with was callous and she should know better. Even if she had left a clear message and you misunderstood there is no reason to give someone who is obviously emotionally wrapped up in the results attitude. Compassion is what is needed.

You are passionate about many things, may I suggest you become passionate about yourself. You are a fantastic person that deserves the same wonderful care that you provide for your loved ones. Remember to include yourself as one of the people you take care of. You don't have to go crazy with the exercise just try to get a little bit in every day. Even if it is a small amount, it is a form of self care and it will become a habit.

C. Beth said...

That study is totally fascinating. I'm glad you shared it.

And I'm sorry things are frustrating with getting answers for Zach, but I'm so GLAD he has you to advocate for him! You go, Mama Bear! Do what you gotta do.

hoteltuesday said...

It's annoying that you had to be confused by those results and then fight about it, but at least the results are 'normal'!

Amy said...

Ok, my overloaded brain could only skim this post. But I'm with you. I ate terribly today and I had pieces of to do's falling all around me.

I'm trying to remember this whole weight loss thing is a marathon, not a sprint. I will reach the end. And so will you. It's just going to take some time.