28 Mar Death by Cheesecake: What was I Thinking?
As Kelly McGonigal writes in the Willpower Instinct, ‘Welcome to the world of Cravings’.
Once upon a time things were different. Way back when, that sweet tooth of ours had everything to do with ‘Stayin Alive’. It meant survival when food was scarce. Extra body fat? Necessary for life insurance. Fast forward to modern day and the tables have turned. Extra weight has become a health risk and our ability to resist tempting morsels is key to long term health.
No, your willpower hasn’t gone anywhere. Our brain’s prefrontal compartment still runs the show but brain architecture has evolved. With that evolution we still have only one brain and yet it can feel like two minds. As hominid grey matter developed we acquired new skills of self-control. This arrangement often leaves us feeling like we are doing mental combat with ourselves. It’s not like that for the sabre-toothed tiger in the Serengeti. One look at you and he instantly knows you are dinner. Is he on a diet? NO. Does he consider if you are too high calorie for him today? NO. We humans are the ones blessed with the advanced brain power of self-control and will power instincts. Lucky us.
When the prefrontal cortex—grey matter in charge of the Willpower Instinct Show—is exhausted, low on fuel, or feeling overworked, ‘I want’ wins out over ‘I won’t’. Frustrating, defeating, and discouraging it is enough to make us question our goals. Heck in the moment, we can even convince ourselves that we can do better tomorrow. One for the road, so to speak. (The ‘we’ll just have it tonight and start tomorrow’ concept is another tripwire in the mine field you are about to navigate.) Science to the rescue…did you know recent studies indicate that self-control is not just a matter of psychology but physiology as well? You likely thought it had to be mind over matter. Apparently there is muscle involved in the process. Build the biceps. Don’t forget to build the brain.
Cheesecake Scenario: You eye the cheesecake and voices start ‘Gotta have that NOW‘. Think you’re hearing things? Nope. Those are handy, helpful dopamine messengers the brain sends to grab our immediate attention. Next, blood sugar drops. No kidding. Our incredibly well-machined body anticipates an upcoming major blood sugar spike. To avoid a sugar coma, aka death by cheesecake, our kind-hearted bodies look out for us and lower, yes lower, the sugar currently circulating in blood sugar. Time to start feeling a little shaky; maybe even some crankiness appears. Advantage: ooey-gooey strawberry cheesecake in deli window. Before you can say ‘Jiminey Cricket’ (and no doubt without realizing it) you have marched into the deli and bought your treat. (BTW: Did you text while waiting in line? Distractions only hasten your demise. And a note re treats: dogs have treats; humans have snacks.) Back to the cheesecake…the instant you wrap your lips around that mound of sugary goodness, incredibly delicious sensations of cream, sweetness, and don’t forget the strawberries, seize your taste buds. Sigh. Mission Accomplished. Winner: Cheesecake!! Aarrrgghhh…!!!!!
What were you thinking? Where did your willpower go? McGonigal provides excellent insight for what just happened. You are not good or bad. Likely you were functioning with a depleted supply of willpower instinct. Traditionally this mechanism of self-control was considered to be totally governed by the brain’s mental capacities. We now know that the actual state of the muscles, the physical nuts and bolts of the prefrontal cortex, play an essential part in our ability to call upon willpower when cravings appear. Good news: there are effective strategies for replenishing and strengthening both the physical and mental state–exercise and adequate sleep for starters.
The ideas and inspiration for this post come from Kelly McGonigal, a Ph.D. health psychologist teaching at Stanford University and specializing in the mind-body connection. Want to know more? McGonigal created a course for Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program called ‘The Science of Willpower’. This popular course provides the foundation of The Willpower Instinct, her book which provides a clear framework for what willpower really is, how it works, and why it matters. McGonigal also authors the ‘Science of Willpower’ blog. Check her out. You won’t be disappointed.