By Rob Clarke Driven Sports
It’s time to start a new ongoing series on psychological mind hacks that you can implement in order to make reaching your goals successfully. Since we are approaching the end of the first quarter for 2012 it makes sense to start with a dieting trick. For many of us, the quest for summer time abs is in full swing, and for some that means the cravings have already kicked in. What can be done about this to help keep you on track?
Without getting too technical on matters of psychology (hopefully) I’d like to discuss how creativity can help. For a complete explanation some background is required (yeah ok, so it will get a little bit technical) about how the brain processes short-term memory. In order to do this I need to rewind a few decades.
In 1970’s two British psychologists (Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch) from the University of York proposed a new paradigm for short term memory that they dubbed “working memory”. Further work by Baddeley has since evolved the model, but the fundamental principle remains: two “slave systems” report to a higher “Central Executive”. Baddeley and Hitch called the slave systems the Phonological Loop and the Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad.
Prior to this model, science assumed that memory was simply a passive storage depot where memories would “sit”. This is partly due to a lack of knowledge at the time, and the restrictions of limited technology available. In reality memories are an ever-active set of processes. Any programmers reading this can liken it to a series of threads in a program being active at any one time. These threads are controlled by the central executive, which is responsible for attention switching, determines which specific stimuli coming from your auditory and optical system that you need to or should focus on, and decides which current memories should be encoded and committed to long-term memory.
The phonological loop is the temporary store of speech. When someone says something to you it is stored here before being sent for processing elsewhere in the brain. A sub-part of the loop is called the Articulatory Control Process, which is sometimes referred to as your ‘inner voice’. When you talk to yourself in your head the articulatory control process encodes it in such a way that it can be stored in the loop as if someone else had spoken to you. The loop is only a short-term store, however, so you help the encoding process by repeating to yourself over and over to ensure the information stays fresh. This is why repetitive chanting helps indoctrination (it is also thought to act as a thought-stopping technique so you focus less on what is actually being said and get more caught up in the elation or “the feeling” of the mood).
The loop is also limiting in how much it can store at any one time (estimated to be in the region of 7-9 items for most people). This is why your friends can be jackasses by saying random numbers or irrelevant phrases (officially known as Dynamic Visual Noise) when you’re trying to remember a number as it “overloads” your loop. It is also why many teachers and professors suggest avoiding listening to music with lyrics while studying.
The visuo-spatial sketchpad holds information coming from your visual field, and also information you mentally envisage with your ‘mind’s eye’. Like the loop, the sketchpad can also be overloaded. You may encounter something so visually stunning that it is hard to take everything in, like the first time you saw the Grand Canyon, or the first time you experienced the skyline of Manhattan in person. Likewise you may be in a situation that overwhelms your senses so much that you find it impossible to concentrate on any single thing. Alternatively you may focus so much on one single thing in that situation that you ignore other stimuli, which is interestingly (brief tangent approaching, folks) something that can make eyewitness accounts of crimes unreliable for various reasons.
Elaborated Intrusion Theory
Overloading the sketchpad can have interesting consequences for matters relating to desire, which is a little bit more to the point of this article. Desire, it has been stated by scientists, is mapped out by cognitive and emotional processes (the “associative processes”) that occur unconsciously which, when stimulated by external cues, lead to elaborated mental imagery (the “elaborated processes”) in the consciousness. These two processes, collectively, have been called the Elaborated Intrusion Theory. In other words, something that you have no conscious awareness of may trigger the memory of something else. You may hear a tune on the radio today that was used in a television commercial years ago for a certain breakfast cereal. Without piecing the information together consciously you may find yourself imagining a bowl of the stuff and suddenly craving it. Some new research has also suggested that this relationship between mental imagery and emotion may be bi-directional, so what you are imagining may also alter your emotional state.
The visuo-spatial sketchpad plays a key role in the elaborated intrusion model as it is the location where the elaborated processes breed. You’ll recall from earlier that there is a limited amount of information that can be stored on the sketchpad at any one time (I’m sure you may be seeing where I am going with this.) By introducing a new, neutral image to the sketchpad they joust for position, blurring your focus between the two, or if it is an interesting enough image, replacing the craving image altogether. This part isn’t simply just a theory either, as it has been demonstrated in human research and repeated on numerous occasions. Earlier studies have found that sketchpad interference via dynamic visual noise (DVN) can interrupt food and chocolate cravings in self-confessed chocolate cravers (aka the “chocoholics”). This has also been shown to work in people actually dieting (when cravings tend to be worse).
The simplest and cheapest way to generate sketchpad interference in the battle against cravings – for those that don’t have specialized computer programs that can generate DVN – has been suggested: get creative.
This is the take home message from the latest study to overload the visuo-spatial sketchpad, which achieved it through clay modelling. In the study, published in the journal Appetite, researchers managed to quell participants’ cravings for chocolate by allowing them to be artistic, sculpting shapes out of clay. The other aspects of the study tested, including mental arithmetic and simply “letting the mind wander” did not aid in suppressing the craving for chocolate. The mental arithmetic was used to assess whether overloading the phonological loop aids in reducing cravings, and once again the research showed that it did not.
So fundamentally, if you are battling cravings when you diet you need to get yourself a hobby that allows you to express your creative side. This creates the distraction that prevents you from desiring and craving the foods you are attempting to avoid. For many people dieting down, they are so busy with work, home chores, working out and other interests that they rarely have time available to allow cravings to come into play. They don’t require a creative distraction because their sketchpads are never clear to develop desire. For others, it is necessary to find something that occupies your focus that doesn’t involve food. Maybe it is time to pick up that old paintbrush again, or blow the dust off your guitar. Whatever you opt for, just make sure it is an outlet for your expressive and creative side.