February 19, 2007 at 10:22 am
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.