I’d Go for the Cake

I’ve been way busy with work – and my commitment to losing weight has suffered for it.

I have long work-days filled with an extraordinary amount of details to remember – and often need to improv on what I know as meetings are called on a whim and I have to go in cold without prep – sometimes talking to ideas that are not mine that I only saw when the Powerpoint slide was shown in the meeting.

This is all day, every day. While I don’t consider myself a genius, somehow I seem to act like a savant and the words just come from somewhere. I walk out of these meetings and colleagues tell me I did great, while I thought I babbled nonsense.

My mind is shot in the evening – and my hour commute does nothing to clear my head. It keeps firing and knocking about like some old cars that I had where you’d turn the thing off and it would continue to fire and cough for as long as it felt like it.

These kind of days don’t help a diet – especially when you live in a house where people love their carbs. I come home, and the diet goes out the window, as it’s easier to grab the available crap food than it is to start cooking.

This past  week was awful – I followed this pattern with a vengeance (diet? What diet?). The scale was merciful to me for a while, but then I had to pay the piper. Bam! I’m back where I started – 214.

OK – being a damn fool about it and not giving up, I’m hitting the reset button yet again and trying yet another modified approach.

The new approach comes from something I heard on NPR. It serves as an explanation for what is going on – and what I might do about it.

The name of the segment was ‘Willpower And The ‘Slacker’ Brain. Here’s a slightly redacted transcript of the segment from the NPR site:

ABUMRAD: Professor BABA SHIV (Stanford Graduate School of Business and Marketing): Im Baba Shiv, a professor here at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Marketing. A lot of my research has to do with the brain.

ABUMRAD: And tricking people.

Prof. SHIV: Oh yeah, absolutely.

KRULWICH: I want to you to tell about one particular experiment that he did.

Prof. SHIV: So the experiment its pretty straightforward.

ABUMRAD: It goes like this. He got a bunch of subjects together. He said, okay, Im going to give you all a number on a little card, you’re going to read the number, and I want you to commit that number to memory.

Prof. SHIV: Take as much time as you want to memorize the number.

ABUMRAD: Then he says

Prof. SHIV: Youre now going to walk to the next room and recall the number. And thats what subjects think. The subjects think that they’re going to be doing in that study.

ABUMRAD: They know that they are going to be in one place getting a number, going to another place, reciting that number.

Prof. SHIV: Thats right.

ABUMRAD: Thats all they know.

Prof. SHIV: Thats all they know.

KRULWICH: What they don’t know is that not everybody is getting the same kind of number.

Prof. SHIV: Some people get a seven-digit number, some people get a two-digit number.

Prof. SHIV: That I can do by the way. I think I can do two digits.

ABUMRAD: No, I doubt it.

ABUMRAD: All the subjects have to do is they’ve got to memorize the number, walk out of room one down the hall, room two, then recite their number. Now, just imagine. You with me?

Prof. SHIV: Mm-hmm.

ABUMRAD: Person with a two digit number in the head is walking out of room one.

Unidentified Woman #1: One, two is my number. I can definitely remember this.

ABUMRAD: Down the hall, same time someone with seven digits in their head

Unidentified Man #3: 1228932

ABUMRAD: Walks down the hall.

Unidentified Man #3: 289

ABUMRAD: Now, heres where the trickery comes in. As they’re walking down the hall, memorizing, all of a sudden

Unidentified Woman #2: Excuse me.

Unidentified Man #4: Oh.

ABUMRAD: …they pass the lady in the hallway, and she’s holding something.

Unidentified Woman #2: Sorry to interrupt you, but would you like a snack?

Unidentified Woman #1: Um

Unidentified Man #3: Sure.

ABUMRAD: She says, here, have a snack just as our way of saying thanks for participating in the study. You can have one of two snacks. You choose

Unidentified Woman #2: You can choose between either A) a big fat slice of chocolate cake, or B) a nice bowl of fruit salad.

ABUMRAD: Meanwhile, they’ve both got these numbers still in their head. Now, heres the weird thing. When they finally make their choice

Unidentified Woman #2: What would you like? Some yummy cake

Unidentified Man #1: Hmm.

Unidentified Woman #2: …or some healthy fruit?

ABUMRAD: The people – the people, this is crazy – the people with two digits in their head

Unidentified Woman #1: You know, I love cake but I think I’ll take the fruit.

ABUMRAD: Almost always choose the fruit.

Unidentified Woman #1: It’s healthy.

ABUMRAD: Whereas the people with seven digits in their head almost always choose the cake.

Unidentified Man #3: You know, the cake. I want the cake.

ABUMRAD: And were talking by huge margins here.

Prof. SHIV: It was significant. I mean, this was like in some cases, 20, 25, 30 point difference.

KRULWICH: So what does

ABUMRAD: Meaning if you have seven digits in your head you are twice as likely to choose cake than fruit, twice.

KRULWICH: So the people with the seven digits get the cake. I get that part. I don’t know why.

ABUMRAD: That doesn’t interest you? As to why they would choose

KRULWICH: Well, yeah, why?

ABUMRAD: Okay, good. Now that I’ve got your interest, I’ll tell you the theory.


ABUMRAD: And this is where it gets interesting. It seems that the brain is anatomically organized into different systems.

Mr. JONAH LEHRER (Science Writer): Dual systems is what they’re called.

ABUMRAD: Thats Jonah Lehrer, science writer, who we often call when talking about brainy stuff. According to Jonah, you have a rational deliberative system which is sort of more to the front of the brain, and then deeper in the brain you have an emotional unconscious system. According to Jonah, these two systems are often at war.

Mr. LEHRER: Theres constant competition between the rational brain and the emotional brain. Theyre always competing for attention and to guide and direct your behavior.

ABUMRAD: Especially when you have a tough choice like Baba Shivs cake versus fruit. There the competition is fierce.

Prof. SHIV: The emotional automatic system is just pushing them towards the cake.

ABUMRAD: The emotional brain loves sweet gooey chocolate cake.

Unidentified Man #4: Chocolate frosting.

ABUMRAD: Thats really what you want.

Unidentified Man #4: Give me a chocolate now.

ABUMRAD: On the other hand

Prof. SHIV: The deliberative system on the other hand comes and says wait a second.

Unidentified Man #5: Im thinking about this choice carefully.

Prof. SHIV: This probably is not good for you because

Unidentified Man #5: Calories, sugar, high fat content.

Mr. LEHRER: Think about your waistline.

Unidentified Man #5: Its going to make you chubby.

Mr. LEHRER: Think about your cholesterol.

Unidentified Man #5: It is not good for your health. It is not good for your self-esteem.

Prof. SHIV: And that acts as a check.

ABUMRAD: But if you give that rational deliberative system seven numbers, just seven to memorize…

Unidentified man #5: 1228936, 12285, 122, one, a cholest 122…

ABUMRAD: Suddenly the rational brain has clearly too much to keep track of.

Unidentified Man #5: Or 2

ABUMRAD: Its getting tired.

Unidentified Man #5: 2

ABUMRAD: It can’t put up as much of a fight.

Unidentified Man #5: Oh.

Prof. SHIV: Which means greater likelihood that the emotions will drive their choices.

ABUMRAD: The astounding thing here, says Jonah, is not simply that, you know, sometimes emotion wins over reason. Its how easily it wins. Seven numbers is all it takes to screw up reason.

Mr. LEHRER: Just think about how astonishingly limited that is.

KRULWICH: Yeah, I mean, compared to emotion, team reason is, well, pretty feeble.

Mr. LEHRER And what we always rely on it, all the advice on decision-making is stop and think, slow down, take your time, and yet when you actually look at the brain, that can lead you to rely on a feeble piece of machinery.

To describe my brain in the evening as a ‘feeble piece of machinery’ is pretty darn accurate.

So now that I know that I can’t depend on my brain in the evenings, how do I get a grip on dinner times and do the right thing by my diet?

As I’m pretty clear-headed in the mornings (I have never written a blog post later than noon, I assure you), right now I’m thinking: if I can only send instructions from the clear-headed me in the morning to the feeble-minded me in the evening – simple instructions on what to do – perhaps I can have more control in the PM.

The trick is: I am so stupid in the evenings that the instructions need to be as simple as possible – they need to require as little thinking as possible.

I’ve got some ideas on this. Stay tuned.

Willpower And The ‘Slacker’ Brain

6 thoughts on “I’d Go for the Cake

  1. That is so cool!

    Yesterday I attended a family gathering in which none of the food or beverage offerings were nutritious. Since I had recently eaten and was neither hungry nor thirsty, I just took one look at the spread and walked away.

    Don’t get the wrong idea. I enjoy the taste of junk food as much as the next person. It’s just that I enjoy feeling comfortable more. My rational brain contains enough memory of pain and knowledge of nutrition that the promise of pleasure holds little attraction. It’s sort of like hey, I’ll have this piece of chocolate cake and then I’ll go punch myself in the face a few times.

    1. You’re a better man than I, David Brown. Either you are more rational than I, or my circumstances simply drive me to stupidity. Regardless, this notion that I am inhabited by my part-time idiot in the evenings gives me the idea that, instead of fighting this tendency at night, I accept this – and reach out to this idiot and manage him – sort of how one might manage a dull employee that you can’t fire. This is done by providing clear, detailed instructions – and not depending on them to think for themselves. Yeah – I know – sounds odd – what can I say? Perhaps I was dropped on my head as an infant.



  2. It must be really hard in the household if others are carbing it up – i am fortunately that everyone here is doing the lifestyle right along with me – my mom, who loves it, my man, who is diabetic and needs it and myself – and we take turns cooking and experimenting with new recipes – we had to tell my daughter in law, the vegetarian that we might not be having her for dinner soon – she will have to wait awhile till we are further in before we want to cook carbs 🙂

  3. Brilliant! That NPR exchange explains a lot.

    But even without that, I have frequently thought about my current self, past self and future self as separate entities (I don’t really have a split personality here, just conceptually LIKE separate entities) where my current self is either grateful or NOT for what my past self prepared for me, or my current self is very aware of taking good care of my future self for a time when she will need it. That is really what you are talking about.

    Something as simple as doing a few chores rather than leaving them for later, when later comes I’m just so grateful that my past self was so nice! Or taking the time to park where it will be more convenient at the end of a long day, even if it’s more work now.

    And you are suggesting that your current self needs to manage your future/evening self like you would an easily distracted employee…

    Yes, you need to make it easier for your future self to do what your current, smart self wants than not to.

    So this is extending the sort of things I do to actually setting it up so that dim future self won’t have to make decisions. It will be happy for that too, you know. Decisions stress her out! LOL

    Yes, plan her dinner, set it up in advance, cook things that only need heating in the microwave. Lovely. We all do these things, but this gives a much better framework in which to understand the importance it has in our WOE.

    Brilliant. Thanks so much for posting this so it would appear in my Google Reader feed. *hug*

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