If you give in to those sugar cravings during the morning coffee break or in the evening while watching TV, you probably assume that you’ve made a conscious choice about what you eat. However, it’s entirely possible that your instincts made the decision, and not your rational mind.
We humans like to believe that we are always rational, and that we always consciously make the best decisions possible with the information we have available. But it isn’t even close to being true — neuroscientists have proven it. Our instincts are alive and healthy, even though we rarely know that our instincts are making our decisions for us. That’s because our brains are built in such a way that our conscious, thinking minds always think they’re in control — even when they’re not.
This is actually a good thing, because in many situations, unconscious decision-making is better than thinking things through. The unconscious, deeper portions of the brain can make decisions much faster than conscious thought, and during the millions of years when humans were living in the natural world, that speed kept us alive. When the tiger suddenly attacks, we need to move fast.
Scientists have shown that in some situations, we actually start moving before our conscious mind has even noticed the danger. Then, when the danger is past, we regale our friends with tales about our speedy response and explain exactly why we decided to act the way we did — even though our conscious mind had absolutely nothing to do with the decision.
Since we now live in an artificial world, the more ancient portions of our brains sometimes make their decisions based on an environment that no longer exists. This is certainly true when it comes to our diet. Sugar cravings, which are often the cause of overeating, are a tool the unconscious mind uses to drive us to hunt for the sweet fruit that was so rare in the natural environment in which humans evolved. In today’s world, the “hunt” involves walking to the refrigerator to retrieve the quart of ice cream in the freezer department.
When I finally realized that I wasn’t always making rational decisions when it came to food, things started to make more sense. I had never been able to understand why I could make intelligent decisions about so many things in my life, but still make such stupid choices about food.
I once baked several pans of cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting with the full intention of taking both pans to work for a pot-luck party the next day. And then I ate one entire pan of rolls that night, all by myself. That isn’t rational. It definitely wasn’t in my best interest. And it wasn’t what I intended to do, but I wasn’t able to stop. “Something else” took control.
But there wasn’t anyone “else” around, so it was obviously me eating all those rolls. I was literally “of two minds” — and I’m not the only one. 60% of Americans are dangerously overweight (and we don’t need a scientific study to prove it – just look around at the folks in a crowd), and that means there are a lot of people in our society who eat more than they should, and probably even more than they want. Diet books wouldn’t be perennial best-sellers if all those overweight Americans liked to eat too much, and enjoyed being overweight.
If eating decisions were always rational, and if our conscious minds were always in control, we’d simply ignore the candy machine in the break room, and walk on past the chips, donuts and baking supplies at the supermarket. But often, we don’t.
When we are most likely to make unconscious eating decisions?
• When we’re doing something that the body naturally associates with survival, (like eating).
• When we’re in a high-stress situations.
That means we’re often in situations when we’re likely to overeat, since many of us are surrounded by food almost all day long, and our jobs and family situations are chronically stressful. During those times, the instincts feel they’re obligated to make our decisions for us.
The old survival-oriented portion of the brain has to have a way to turn off the conscious mind, without our knowing it. If this wasn’t possible, our “thinking” brain would get in the way. But in today’s world, this “invisibility” works against us when un-conscious decisions are made about matters of diet and health.
When it comes to making eating choices in a world filled with manufactured food, our instinctive mind just can’t be expected to make healthy, reasonable choices. Most of the snacks and fast food that are available today were specifically designed to make the most of (should we say “to prey upon”?) our instinctual desire for sugar, fat and salt.
Our conscious minds knows that we need more fruits and vegetables, a balanced diet, and more exercise. But when we have an opportunity to make the choice between a healthy meal and a convenient, fattening snack, we often let our instinctive mind make the choice for us – especially when we’re under stress.
Now that we know that this phenomenon happens, (not just to you but to everyone), we have the opportunity to learn the simple tricks that have been used for centuries to take conscious control.
In the next post I’ll show you some simple techniques I borrowed from the ancient Masters. They call it “living in the present” or “staying awake.” Don’t worry – you don’t need to become a Zen master to learn these techniques. I’m going to show you some mental exercises I discovered that are easy to understand and simple to apply — so that you can begin using them immediately. So, as they say on TV – stay tuned.