Monday, March 16, 2009

Binary Nature of the Brain

I've noticed something about the human brain--mine, at least. In matters of self-control, the brain is binary. It's either on or off. It's either yes or no. There's no such thing as middle ground.

We have a tendency to think our controls are analog, from too many years spent turning the volume knob on the radio up or down. Smokers think they can cut back. Alcoholics think they can handle just one drink. People who struggle with weight think they can have an extra snack "just this once."

It's as though we picture our mental control board as being covered by dials. When we go on a diet, we turn down the Junk Food Dial all the way to OFF, and there it stays, and as long as we keep it there, the weight comes off.

But then we start feeling in control as we reach our target, and we give ourselves permission to have a tiny, harmless indulgence. We turn the dial to the first position up from OFF, secure in the knowledge that we'll be fine.

What we don't understand, however, is that the brain is not analog. Behind what we think is the control board, lie the real controls: toggle switches. Back when we started the diet and turned the dial all the way down, it flipped the switch to the OFF position. We no longer had permission to cheat with our eating.

But when we turned that dial to the '1' position, the toggle switched ON. Permission granted. All systems GO. If you've fought the fat battle before, you know what happened next.

When my mom and I were on our trip, we did a great job of eating right and keeping our weight from getting out of hand, the way weight can when you travel. But sometime after I got back home, I turned up the dial a tiny bit, and--because I was mostly careful--very, very slowly, I gained weight. Enough that some of my clothes didn't fit right anymore.

So about six weeks ago, I embarked on a diet program with supplements (nothing dangerous) and an eating-right plan and a workout plan (that I usually ignore). I turned the Eating switch to OFF (aka, Diet Mode) and began obediently following the food part of the plan.

About a week into it, my daughter brought me one of those tiny squares of dark chocolate, about three-quarters of an inch across. She prefers milk chocolate, and dark is my favorite, so that's why she gave it to me. But I left it on the counter, unwilling to eat it, and not even tempted to break my diet for it, except that she was disappointed that I didn't eat her gift right away. What to do?

After giving it some thought, I told my daughter that the chocolate would be my reward for losing ten pounds. It's been sitting on the counter, next to my supplements and food plan/recipe book, ever since.

Until today.

Yes, today I finally hit -10 lbs., and tonight I had that piece of chocolate in four leisurely bites with a cup of tea.

I think my decision to use the chocolate as a reward for a finite event is enough to keep my brain from flipping ON the Chocolate Permission switch. At least, I certainly hope it is. And it helps that there's no other chocolate in the house.

So tomorrow I should be back with the program, obediently OFF for all the edible perils that lurk in the world around me. But only time will tell...


janice said...

Congrats, Skye!

Dieting, I find, got tougher as I got older. In my 20's and 30's I could drop 10 pounds in 2 weeks with no problems. Now I struggle as I turn the calendar pages and notice it's going to be shorts and t-shirt weather soon.

However, after reading your post, I've just gotten weaker and not completely switched the toggle to the OFF position.

I'm going to turn it OFF today! You've inspired me. I keep you posted on my progress.

Great observation, BTW.

PS - my word verification is "tuffin". I hope I won't be "tuffin" it out to drop this weight!

Malott said...


I personally find fasting easier than dieting, which also supports your theory, and causes me to admire your self control.

I agree that dark chocolate is the best... though I prefer mine with coffee.

Keep up the great work!

Tsofah said...

Wow! Ten pound weight loss? That is wonderful, Skye!

When I crave dark chocolate, I tend to eat one (that's ONE) dark chocolate covered coffee bean. If the craving hits at night, well... just has to wait until morning. If the craving is gone in the morning, then, "mission accomplished" and I don't eat it!

But, minus 10 lbs? That is just wonderful!

Charlie said...

Congratulations on hitting your target! Great insight, too. None of us does moderation very well. It always slides into excess. Thanks for sharing your success.

Christina said...

Congrats on the 10 lbs. That's a great accomplishment because it is so hard to lose the weight and so easy to gain it.

I have found that pregnancy is the easiest time for me to lose weight. I know that's strange, and I never try to, but so far, it has happened both times. With Emily, I wasn't even sick, but I still ended up about 10 lbs down after she was born.

With this one, I am already 6-10 lbs down and haven't gained any weight, yet the baby is clearly growing and gaining, which leads me to believe that I am actually losing weight still.

Of course, this is, as usual abnormal...but so is much of the rest of my life...

Christina said...

Oh, and dark chocolate is definitely the best.

However I prefer mine with Coke!

Bekah said...

I'm the odd one out - much preferring milk chocolate to dark chocolate...and wanting milk chocolate with a glass of milk! Even typing about it makes me hungry for it....

....but congratulations on the ten pounds - I am very proud of you!!!

Jacob said...

It's when you start eating the furniture and move on to your housemates that you know your diet is out of control, Skye. That's my experience anyway.

All_I_Can_Stands said...

I have been sick for over a month now. One of those bugs that never goes away, hits hardest on weekends for some reason.

I have lost 14 lbs in that time. My body hovered teasingly ounces above the 200 lb mark. What to do? Wish I stayed sick? Nah, but I do hope I can push it under that mark. I did it this time last year, but it crept back.

Jacob said...

Woah, AICS, sounds like you have something more akin to the AIDS virus than a cold.