16/300: Taming the Impulse Dragon

I’m reading a fascinating book right now on how impulsivity works from a psychological and neurological perspective. In “Impulse: Why we do what we do without knowing why we do it,” Dr. David Lewis explores the nature of impulses ranging from love at first sight and jumping off a cliff to overeating and how the length of a man’s index finger might indicate his willingness to take financial gambles.

It’s fascinating stuff. A little dense, but fascinating.

The human brain is a mysterious and wondrous thing. I find myself picking up more and more material and devouring it – my brain, it seems, has become interested in brains.

The section I’m reading right now is about impulsive eating. I’ve long been a person prone to irrational binging. I’ll be on my way to bed and have no idea how a hand full of Saltines appeared. I’ll be on my way to work and suffer from a powerful urge for a McMuffin. And I’ve long thought this was a personality problem. Perhaps I have some unresolved trauma in my past I treat with food. Maybe I just lack the will power to stay on a diet.

In “Impulse,” Lewis explores another reason for my indulgence- addiction. Savory, sugary and fatty foods create dopamine releases in your brain in much the same way cocaine and heroin do. A person prone to eating these foods is literally addicted to them. There are lots of physical, psychological and evolutionary reasons for this, all of which Lewis tackles in the book. But perhaps the biggest reason you eat without thinking is that the addiction is controlled by System I (or impulsive) thinking.

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” or Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” you are aware of the two different types of thinking that our brain does. There is System I (or System 1) that is responsive, impulsive and unconscious. It gets you out of the way of an oncoming car, keeps you breathing, gets you to move your hand off a hot stove. System R (or System 2) thinking is rational. It is considered. It takes into account cause and effect.

The key to battling the binge is to take steps to ensure the switch from System I to System R thinking, Lewis argues. And he offers up 10 methods for slowing down your thinking when you eat that I thought I’de share here:

  1. Use smaller plates and bowls. Big plates trick your reptile brain into losing a sense of portion. You eat because it’s there. Smaller plates and bowls don’t hide the amount of food you’re actually consuming.
  2. Use tall, skinny glasses when drinking anything but water. Our minds are victims of something called the Horizontal-Vertical illusion. When something is squat and wide, we lose sight of its volume. When it’s tall and thin, we have a better sense of how much liquid is in there.
  3. Eat with chopsticks. I love this one and not just because I really love Japanese, Chinese and Thai food. Chopsticks force you to think. Thinking leads to better decisions. Try it, you’ll eat slower and, more than likely, feel fuller eating less.
  4. Put ice in your beverages. Not only with this reduce the volume in your glass, but your body will burn on average of a little more than 1 calorie per ounce of liquid it has to warm up. Just adding ice to your 8 8-ounce glasses of water can burn an additional 70 calories per day.
  5. Eat alone. In a study called “Secret Eaters,” Lewis tracked calorie consumption of people in the same restaurant alone, with one person and in a large group. People eating in a large group consumed 600 more calories than those eating alone. Why? Because when you’re busy talking and socializing, you’re not thinking about eating. Your System I thinking takes over and you eat without thinking.
  6. Be wary of soft music and lighting in restaurants. These are designed to encourage lingering. Lingering leads to more eating. More eating leads to regret, if you’re like me. Pay attention to your surroundings and conscious of your consumption.
  7. Get a good night’s sleep. Studies have found that sleep deprived people eat more. Well-rested folks eat more consciously. Your mother was right.
  8. Don’t shop for food when you’re hungry. You’ve heard this one before, but it bears repeating.
  9. Keep snacks in opaque containers and out of the line of sight. If there’s cookies in the cookie jar, you have to think about getting one out and eating it. If there’s cookies on a glass plate next to you, you’ll eat without thinking.
  10. Switch-hit movie popcorn. Lewis says eating popcorn in the movie with your dominant hand requires less thinking. If you’re right-handed, try eating with your left and vice versa. Eating with your non-dominant hand requires concentration. Concentration requires thought. Thought leads to better decisions.

I don’t want to give too much of the book away. It really is a great read, packed full of the science behind impulsive behaviors and ways to make yourself more conscious of the things you do before you do them. Give it a read. Maybe, if you’re like me, there are some impulses you can control.


photo from: http://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-serving-sizes

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