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The Power of Positive Thinking

Ever since starting a weight loss blog, I find myself relating things to weight loss that I might not have otherwise. For instance, I read an article last week in New York Magazine about how it’s better to praise kids for working hard than for being naturally talented. The basic premise is that if kids think they’re doing well because they’re simply smart, when they attack a problem they can’t solve they will quit because they don’t want to disprove the fact that they’re smart. Because if they were smart, they’d automatically be able to do it, right? If you praise kids for working hard, they will be more likely to keep working on a problem even if it’s difficult.

That’s a pretty interesting exploration in the power of belief all in itself. But there was this interesting nugget on page 4 too:

But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification. Delving into this research, I learned that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain. Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis located the circuit in a part of the brain called the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex. It monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.” While putting people through MRI scans, Cloninger could see this switch lighting up regularly in some. In others, barely at all.

What makes some people wired to have an active circuit?

Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

Which means my recent plateau is actually good for me! It’s building up my persistence levels. My brain is like an old lady in a casino who keeps feeding coins into the slots because she knows the next one will bury her up to her granny panties in coins. When I do start losing weight again, I’m training myself that if I keep trying the rewards will come. It also means I should take a vacation in Vegas. The casinos obviously have lots to teach me and I hear the food is free.

This information makes me wonder if there are people who give up on weight loss quickly simply because their brains are not flipping their persistence circuit on. But they shouldn’t give up hope either, because you can be trained to have more persistence (see Vegas Vacation).

The other interesting part of the article talked about a study where one group of kids read an article about how intelligence can be developed because the brain is a muscle which becomes stronger after a harder workout. The other group of kids didn’t read this article. The kids who read the article got higher test scores and grades. The power of positive thinking, eh? This study illustrates one of the biggest problems I have with the fat acceptance movement which is that they tell you weight loss is impossible to maintain in the long run. Sure, it’s very hard, but it’s not impossible. This study seems to show that if you tell people it’s impossible, you’re cutting their chances of being able to do it simply by saying that. If you tell people it’s possible with hard work and effort, you increase their chances without ever chaining them to a treadmill.

All of this information further leads me to believe that weight loss is much more of a mental problem to overcome than a physical one. Sometimes I think it’s just a long process of brainwashing yourself into the right ways of thinking.

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19 Comments

barbara • February 19, 2007 at 11:15 am

Hi PQ, I really like what you have to say about weight loss being as much or more about changing our mental processes as our eating behaviors. I was also thinking that one of the insidious aspects of all this is that those of us whose brains may not be as “wired for persistence” as other people’s, also get used to the immediate gratification of eating… so it becomes a double whammy: learning to defer gratification, while also learning to give up the immediate gratification that many of us have gotten so used to. But, as you say, difficult — but NOT impossible! Thanks for your blog — it’s great. — Barbara in NYC, with approx. 15 pounds to go

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Smissy • February 19, 2007 at 11:29 am

I love it! The power of positive thinking helps in weight loss and so many areas of life. I definitely agree that some of it’s hardwired, but nice to hear with persistance it can be changed. I agree that maintaining weight loss long term is very much a challenge, but NOT impossible if you believe you can do it.

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summer • February 19, 2007 at 11:51 am

SUCH a great post, PQ. I think the brain is designed to assess the pros and cons of any endeavor in advance. If you manage to convince yourself the attempt is worthless, you won’t succeed.

I know you aren’t a WW person, but they have something called “framing’ or “modelling” or something, where you are supposed to imagine your goal in as vivid detail as you can — kind of a positive thinking thing.

All I know about fat acceptance is that it depresses me. The thought of being told I am “stuck” at this weight kills me.

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metamorphose • February 19, 2007 at 12:15 pm

BRILLIANT post. Just simply brilliant! Here’s to positive persistent thinking!

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karaokekitty • February 19, 2007 at 1:30 pm

I love that idea, positive brainwashing. That’s pretty much we’re doing, right? Re-learning how to exercise and eat right. Yup, I guess I’ve been doing a little brainwashing on myself! Now if I could only brainwash myself into thinking brownies taste bad!

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Vamp • February 19, 2007 at 1:42 pm

I honestly think positive thinking has a LOT to do with why I’ve finally clicked and started losing weight. I’ve wanted to lose it for years, and even tried halfheartedly a couple of times but it wasn’t until I truly insisted on thinking positively and telling myself that this was the only alternative I had available that I really felt the change begin to happen.. I know it sounds weird, but it’s almost like there was a lightbulb in my body that went: ding, tada! ^_^ It got further reinforced when I went to Catherine’s Saturday and was able to wear 4x’s instead of the 5x’s. Yay! :) Great article PQ!

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NicoleW • February 19, 2007 at 2:04 pm

Wow. Great post that’s given me a lot to think about, because guess what kind of kid I was? And guess what I’d do when I started getting frustrated with something that wasn’t working out?

I’m going to have to train my persistence circuit along with my muscles, it sounds like.

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psychsarah • February 19, 2007 at 2:11 pm

I love this idea of applying this research to weight loss. Hopefully one day these researchers will take that approach.

In the meantime, I would like to add that studies of cognitive-behavioural therapy for depression (which focuses on altering the automatic thoughts people have-not necessarily “positive thinking”) have shown that there are changes in the brain similar to those seen with use of certain anti-depressant medications. The point is, by changing your thoughts, you can change your brain. It takes work and practice, but its possible!

Keep up the good work PQ! You’re always an inspiration to me.

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JEM • February 19, 2007 at 5:30 pm

I just found your blog and it has been beyond inspirational to me. Finding someone who has been where I am now and made it through really gives me strength. Thank you for empowering people. I love the twirling before and after pictures! Do you mind if I link your site to mine so others can be inspired? Take care.

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Debbie • February 19, 2007 at 8:34 pm

Great post. I agree that the battle begins and ends with the way you think about weight loss. In between is the dieting.

I’d just like to add that I don’t agree with people who think you should lose the weight and just expect that you’ll never regain an ounce.

That would be great. But it’s not a reasonable expectation. I think it would be a lot better if every weight loss method provided you with an easy way to deal with regaining weight before it gets out of hand.

I think it would help a lot of yo-yo dieters. And again, I believe this starts with the way we think about weight loss. It shouldn’t be all or nothing. It just doesn’t work that way for most people.

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Chris H • February 20, 2007 at 1:26 am

I totally agree, weight loss is 100% a mental effort, and maintaining the loss also of course. It is the brain that tells the body what to do afterall, and we have to train our brains to think a different way from our old habits, or we will ultimately fail. I struggle with my brain every day! Bloody thing so wants to regress back to it’s old way of thinking, working on it…

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Karen • February 20, 2007 at 12:25 pm

It is a lonely, windswept place on that plateau. I know…I’m up there right now too. I have a couple of CDs on affirmations, visualization, etc. I listen to. They are unremittingly corny, but hey they work. I had to try out several different ones before I found a couple I could listen to without too much wincing. I also read that making your own affirmation tape is helpful.

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amyt • February 20, 2007 at 12:56 pm

thinking happy makes all the difference for sure.

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Laura • February 20, 2007 at 3:47 pm

Thank you for this info – I found this a very enlightening post! It was sort of an epiphany for me, because like NicoleW above, I was totally the child who was praised for being smart or talented at something. I am also now a person who finds nothing more embarassing than to have others think I’m not good at something or not smart, so guess what? I usually don’t even try to do something that I think I might fail at. And I have never really noticed or done anything about this part of my psyche before because I have never had it framed in quite this way before.

I think even just being aware of the fact that there’s this hard-wired tendency to be persistent (or not) in the face of adversity will be helpful to me. Before, quitting in the absence of quick results was a natural reaction for me, but I see now that I don’t *have* to quit. Having some awareness about the fact that giving up is just a tendency will help me overcome it.

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Carolina • February 20, 2007 at 11:16 pm

I can’t simply say how much I love coming to your blog, I come from time to time to read your great insights. I don’t have a weight problem, neither any of my friends, but after reading this last post I truly need to share it, it is just great.

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ky_expatriate • February 21, 2007 at 1:05 pm

This echoes something I read once in one of the nurse Cherry books. (Depending on your perspective, she’s either a more or less liberated version of Nancy Drew — on the one hand, she has a job. On the other hand, it’s quite clear that she became a nurse because girls didn’t become doctors. The books are set in the 40s.) Anyway, at one point someone comments to Cherry, “You know, it’s almost too bad that you’re so good at so many things. Because when you come across something that’s difficult for you, you won’t want to try.” That’s resonated with me, particularly of late. Anyway, we all know you can push through this plateau — you’ve done so much already!

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Jana • February 22, 2007 at 2:06 am

Well, I started my weight loss and excersise programm about a month ago and I have been stuck at the same weight plateau for 7 days now. SEVEN days. I feel like a fat little hamster on one of those wheels, just running and running and running and getting nowhere.

This morning I woke up, checked my weight and decided to be pissed off.

Then I read this wonderful blog of yours and I feel I’ve just been told, personally, stick in there, keep at it, you will be rewarded.

Thank you.

I am not pissed off anymore. I’m hopeful again.

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K • February 23, 2007 at 4:36 pm

There’s a lot in what you say.

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Dana • August 6, 2009 at 11:04 am

The other thing I hate about the fat acceptance movement is the way they put across this message that a fat person is fat just because they are fat, there’s nothing wrong with them to make them that way.

While there’s certainly room for a bit of variation in bodyweight among healthy people, nobody gets a hundred pounds overweight without *something* going on.

I wonder how many folks they’ve condemned to diabetes and heart problems by taking that stance. I don’t believe obesity causes those problems but I think all three conditions have the same causes that need to be dealt with. The medical community is unforgivably lazy as it is, not looking for underlying causes of things like obesity and depression. Let’s not let them off the hook that easily.

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Comments are now closed on all PastaQueen entries. The blog is an archive only so I don't have to deal with spammers. For fresh discussions please visit my new blog JenFul.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for keyboards ruined by coffee spit-takes or forehead wrinkles caused by deep thought.

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