Monday, 10 August 2009

This is awesome

(I hope the commenter doesn't sue me for the verbatim lift. Linky 1 and Linky 2 from a Hacker News discussion on useless Time magazine article on why exercise is useless.)
Self-restraint is a hackable psychological phenomenon in one's brain. I agree that it is not an innate moral power, but I disagree that it is a distinct human quality that can be strengthened. Self-restraint boils down to optimism. People can put themselves through anything if they have faith that it will pay off in the end. Rational knowledge doesn't help, and it isn't a matter of simply being harsh with oneself, either: harshness and pessimism just produce a paralyzed, chubby, self-loathing person. If passing up a cheeseburger leaves you with a dead feeling inside -- "I'm deprived now and screwed in the long run anyway, what a waste" -- then you won't be able to keep it up. If you have faith that passing up the cheeseburger will have a long-term payoff, then your brain gives you a down payment of happiness that cancels out the displeasure of depriving yourself.

That's why thinking about a distant, glorious end result (like a smoking hot beach body) works for some people but is counterproductive for others. It's motivational if you really believe in it. For many people, though, it's just a reminder that they're making sacrifices for something that they don't believe in at all. Those people are better of thinking of less distant payoffs that they can really believe in, even if the payoffs are trivial by comparison.

Some people think that your brain will simply not accept passing up food that your body thinks it needs, that it's completely unnatural and therefore impossible. But you do things all the time that have energetic costs and distant, uncertain payoffs. Hard work, saving money, hell, even just getting out of bed: these are things that impose immediate costs. Your brain does emotional bookkeeping to incline you to avoid costs that have no payoff. If you've ever been depressed, you know that getting out of bed is sheer misery if you believe that nothing good will come of it. Yet it's normal to get out of bed, get to work on time, and work at a job for a payoff that comes a few weeks later. (Or, for a startup, months or years later.) In the same way, it can be normal to pass up food. You just have to have faith in the payoff. You might think that food has some special status in your brain, and it might, but your brain is surprisingly abstract and adaptable. (Consider the recent article about money!) Also consider that physical labor is basically the opposite of food, but people manage to habituate themselves to physical labor despite the complaints of their body (which are, initially, totally out of proportion to the physical cost.)
Having faith isn't easy; in fact, it's really hard. But it demystifies the question of why people eat or don't eat, and why they feel good or bad when doing so. I find it much easier to deal with my "faith" than to struggle directly with my impulses.

[...]The strength of one's restraint is measured against the strength's of one's desires. You improve results by strengthening restraint and weakening appetite.
I see self-restraint as a limited amount of discretion that a person has to override his natural tendency to maximize emotional reward. As the article says, self-restraint is tiring and unnatural; it's a stopgap measure at best. The primary conflict is in your emotional brain's cost/benefit analysis of the situation. You have to hack your emotional reward system so you don't have to employ as much self-restraint. When you naturally derive satisfaction from eating well, because you have faith in the ultimate payoff, your natural tendency will not be as strongly tilted in favor of overeating.

Your subconscious/emotional/whatever brain is smarter than most people think. You aren't doomed to have an out-of-touch brain that fills you with irresistible, self-destructive impulses to overeat. We may have evolved on the savannah, but if you can stand on a subway platform, surrounded by strangers whose personal feelings about you are unknown, waiting for a huge steel structure to come whizzing by you at high speed, without feeling scared, you can learn to leave food on your plate. You just have to program your brain properly (cultivate faith) so that you feel, subconsciously, that limiting your eating leads to well-being and happiness (and, according to the highly publicized recent study, more sex if you're a man.)
Like another commenter said, made me think in a way that I've never thought before.

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