Hey there Guys,
Have you ever had a diet that failed?
Have you been on the brink of success, only to have it sabotaged at the last minute?
Have you ever had a new year resolution die a sad death, despite your best intentions?
Welcome to the human condition. We are victims of our own caveman brain. Or to be exact, our early brain – the limbic system.
What is the limbic system and what does it have to do with success?
The limbic system is one of the oldest parts of our brain.
It is deeply connected with four of our most primal drives: feeding, fleeing, fighting and to put it bluntly, fucking.
Almost all of our emotions are driven through this part of our brain. It is designed to recognize threatening situations, alert the higher brain of potential pending doom and then create an action to reverse this potential problem.
When we were cave men this was a very useful system.
You see a lion appearing on the horizon. The limbic system activates and alerts the higher brain of potential death. Blood is diverted to the brain, eyes and muscles to get ready to flee from the danger.
The problem is that in modern society we rarely have these same levels of danger, yet our limbic system activates as if we were at grave risk of losing our life.
Take speaking in public. Studies have shown that people are more fearful of speaking in front of a group of people than they are of death!
But what are we fearing? Stammering? Embarrassment? That someone will shoot us in the head if our opening lines don’t rivet them to their seat?
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s highly unlikely that public speaking will result in death, however our body responds in a way that would suggest it could happen.
This is a good example of how our the oldest part of our brain has not yet adapted to modern life. We are frequently in a stressed, fear based response pattern when the threat to our self is not real. It is perhaps only a “potential threat” with no solid basis in truth.
As Seth Godin says in his blog post “Quieting The Lizard Brain“, we often act in the exact opposite to our dreams based on fear responses designed to resist any change in our current status.
So how does this relate to new years resolutions?
We humans are creatures of habits. The more we do something, the more automated it becomes.
Take driving. When you first start learning to drive it’s a difficult task that takes lots of concentration. As our skills improve we slowly delegate the complex actions of driving to our automated systems so we can use our brains for other functions. After a while we “forget” the process we learned as it’s all looked after without our conscious thought.
Think quickly…if you are driving a manual car, which do you do first when changing gears, put your foot on the clutch or your hand on the gear stick? Chances are you have no idea. It’s all done automatically.
Automatic behaviors are resistant to change and, you guessed it, when you want to change a habit it will be the limbic system’s job to “protect you” by blocking any movement towards change.
Resolutions like weight loss are perceived by the limbic system as a serious potential threat to our life.
Think about it. If there is a sudden decrease in food intake this could lead to starvation and potential death.
When we are hungry it’s our limbic system that drives us out (sometimes literally) to seek food in whatever form we can get. Unfortunately in our modern life, some of the easiest and fastest choices just happen to be the worst for us.
Thank you McDonald’s drive though. Perfect to satisfy our limbic system, terrible for our goals.
The same goes for things like exercise.
Our brains are programmed to conserve energy. Exercise is yet another stimulus that could very well risk our energy stores, leading us to potential starvation.
You may be aware of a friend that says “well it’s OK to have that extra serve, I’ve exercised today”. This is our primitive brain doing it’s best to make sure we don’t starve.
Interestingly this is in direct opposition to recent studies that show our bodies releases appetite suppressant hormones to our body after exercise. Yes indeed, even though our body is able to say “you don’t need to eat”, our primal brain is still able to over ride this response to help make sure we don’t go hungry.
So how do we retrain our limbic system?
If there is anything we can learn from our behaviours, it’s that sudden big change is bloody hard.
This is exactly why crash diets never work, and why quitting smoking cold turkey is destined to failure.
Big sudden change is just too much for our limbic system to cope with.
You’ll notice that I mention big change. The easiest way to make changes in our habits is to do it via a slow progression.
When I talk to patients who are keen to give up smoking I often talk about doing a gradual reduction. Say just reduce by one cigarette every three to four days.
If your body is used to smoking 20 cigarettes per day, just missing one is not going to cause a system freak out. Once your body is used to smoking 19 cigarettes a day, you can do the same again.
Wash, rinse, repeat. Before you know it you are down to just one or two cigarettes per day and it was not nearly as stressful as you thought.
Had you tried to give up cold turkey though, the sudden reduction of nicotine would have been a dramatic change and the limbic system would have kicked in to help make sure your body was able to get its steady dose of “life saving” nicotine.
The same works for reducing the amount of food you eat at a meal.
If you are used to having large portions, simply halving your meal size is going to freak your brain out. You will have obvious hunger that may result in midnight trips to the fridge to bring you back to your steady state.
Instead, how about just leaving a mouthful or two on your plate? Your body won’t miss them and over time you will become used to eating less.
Sadly our modern life has reduced our ability to identify when our stomach is full. The simple act of leaving some food on our plate is a step toward learning the subtle sensation of a full stomach again.
Do you have a habit of picking up a chocolate bar as you go through the checkout at the shopping centre? How about picking up a bunch of grapes from the fruit section before you hit the checkouts. This way you still get the sensation of sweet after shopping and you get to benefit from a better choice and the vitamins and minerals you would not get from a chocolate bar.
It’s all about small changes made slowly. This is not a sprinting race. You have plenty of time to make the changes, soothing your lizard brain and avoiding its “life or death” cries for help.
If you notice that your brain is starting to freak out it just means you are making the changes a little too fast. Just take it back a notch and your brain will settle.
Slow and steady wins the race, and avoids upsetting our limbic system as well.
Guys I know that this was a bit of a heavy article today. Motivation and how our brain functions is a complex area. I hope that I have made it just a little clearer.
I understand that you may well have questions so please feel free to drop a response in the box below. I will do my best to answer them for you.
If you would prefer to talk with me directly feel free to us the “Contact Dr George“ page linked here.
Have a great week!