Friday, January 27, 2017

Forming new habits. How long will you wait for results? Part 3.

How long before people abandon their new nutrition plan or exercise habit?

For parts one and two, go here and here.

Research shows that by now most people have given up on their new year exercise plan or nutrition plan. Dry January or Veganuary have quickly turned into beer and a burger for quite a few people.

But why? And why are some people still going and sticking to their plan?

Temporal Discounting.

In behavioural economics and neuroscience there is something called Temporal Discounting. Basically, how long are you willing to wait for a reward. And in general humans (and animals) prefer immediate reward to delayed reward.

For example, its not unusual for people to say after a week of exercise 'I haven't lost any weight yet' or a week of more healthy eating 'I don't feel any different, when will I lose weight?'.

The brain wants immediate results and rewards.

"Large probable, immediate rewards are preferred to smaller, less likely and distant ones." (Gazzaniga et al, 2008:p528)

This could explain two phenomena we all see on a daily basis. One, people weighing themselves after every workout, in the hope there has been an immediate loss of fat or gain in muscle mass. Two, people rewarding themselves with a chai latte and cake after a workout and immediately consuming more calories than they burned off.

Most of the studies focus on monetary rewards in humans (sometimes while they are are in an MRI scanner) or giving juice to monkeys, or sometimes a poor rat with an electrode implanted in the 'reward' centre of the brain.

A common question in these studies is, would you like £10 now or £11 tomorrow,? Most people choose £10 today. But if you say would you like £10 in a year, or £11 in a year + 1 day? It is so far in the future people will choose the £11. (McClure, 2004).

It is not uncommon for lottery winners to be offered a lump sum now, but half the actual amount they won, or the total sum in portions over several years. People opt for the lump sum, even though it is less money.

Exercise and new nutrition habits are by their very nature delayed rewards for people new to it. They are not necessarily exercising because they love it, they are doing it because of a future delayed reward such as fitting into a dress, looking good on the beach. And for many people this reward seems 'distant' and unlikely (due to past failures).

The brains reward system likes immediate rewards. The release of dopamine creates pleasure. It activates neurons in the Nucleus Accumbens/ Ventral Striatum (the 'reward' centre deep in the brain).This dopamine release can be caused by drugs, but also by other things such as a tasty cake. Therefore, your reward system can say 'eat the cake, weightloss is too far away to think about, we need a reward now, we've had a tough day at work.'

Back to rat in the lab, when it has an electrode in its brain that fires off some dopamine reward cells every time it hits a lever, guess what it does? It hits that lever obsessively, in fact ignoring food and water until it collapses from exhaustion because it values the activation of the reward centre in the brain over everything else.

If you keep checking social media every 5 mins, or have ever played a computer game all night, you are basically that rat hitting the lever, looking for a hit of dopamine.

BUT, humans are not rats. We have some (newer from an evolutionary point of view) parts of the brain that deal in self control and planning. The Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC), at the front of your brain.

You can make your brain choose healthy foods.

For example, in one study on dieters (Hare et al, 2009). There were two groups, a group exercising self control, a group not exercising self control.  They rated 50 different foods for taste ( very bad to  very good) and healthiness (unhealthy to very healthy). These foods included 'junk' food like crisps and candy, and healthy foods like fruit and vegetables.

Then while in a MRI scanner they had to reject foods on offer and choose other ones. They had actually not eaten for three hours, and the food they choose they got to eat at the end. The self controllers rejected the unhealthy foods they liked and choose healthy ones they disliked more often. It is not that they didn't find junk food tasty or really likes healthy foods, they just had better self control. In fact, a part of their brain called the dlPFC was more activated in the self controllers. This is the part of the brain that is making more deliberate decisions. This part of the brain was operating far sighted behaviour.

And your brain does this all the time. For example, people book holidays in the future, they save money for pensions and they go to University, when the reward of a degree is years away.

Our brain would like things as soon as possible (Kable and Glimcher, 2010), but it knows that this might involve a delay. For example, you order something on the internet, it wont arrive for 3 or 4 days, but you are prepared to wait. If you went into a shop and they said you had to wait 3 or 4 days before you could buy an item, you would go somewhere else. Your brain understands context.

The reward has to be big enough and important enough. £10 now or £10,000 in a year, err I'll wait a year thanks. The problem is most people aren't thinking about the rewards of exercise and nutrition like this. In their mind the reward isn't big enough to wait.

They are thinking about it much more like a monkey being given juice. A trigger goes off, a few seconds later the monkey is given some juice, there is a dopamine spike in the brain and the reward centre is activated. After a while, there is a dopamine spike when the trigger happens, before the monkey has had the juice. The expectation of reward is triggering a response in the brain. But, if there is a trigger and no reward, eventually the monkey gets wise and realises there will be no reward, the expectation has gone, that 'reward' part of the brain no longer activates.

This is like someone who starts exercising, the anticipation of weight loss and feeling better drives them, but after a while they get no results, they get despondant and give up, the reward system is not firing anymore. A cake will fire it off immediately.

Whereas, the crash diet industry knows how to hit the reward system. Have a novel food you have to eat, restrict calories, lose a lot of weight in a short period of time, weigh yourself five days later and the reward system in the brain goes into overdrive. But the pain is too much, eventualy they give up.

Your emotions are affecting your decisions.

Attractive women, bad decisions and blue oceans.

In one study called Do Pretty Women Inspire Men to Discount the Future ( Wilson and Daly, 2003), the researchers offered men a small monetary reward tomorrow or a larger sum in the future (7 to 236 days). One group were shown pictures of 'hot women' (yes, the researchers actually got the pictures from hot or The men who viewed the hot pictures were more likely to accept the smaller offer tomorrow than a larger amount in the future. They forgot about the future, the planning part of their brain wasn't thinking that far ahead.

Or to put it another way, a young guy is doing some shoulder rehab work and mobility exercises in a gym, an attractive female in yoga pants walks past, next thing you know he is doing max bench press and bicep curls and ignoring his shoulder health.

The researchers found no such effect with women looking at hot men, they were better at keeping a sense of perspective!

Imagine a calming blue ocean...

In another study (Delgado et al 2008), a group of people were asked to visualise a small money monetary reward, $4, or imagine something in nature that is calming and blue, while in an MRI scanner.

The people imagining the calming blue ocean had less activation in the reward centre of the brain and more activation in the control, future planning centre of the brain. They weren't thinking about the money they were going to get.

Now, this doesn't mean emotions are bad. In fact, people who have damage to the emotional parts of the brain make notoriously bad decisions or no decision at all.

The point of this is not that you should avoid hot women or imagine blue calming things, but how even the most basic visualisation and exposure to pictures can affect your brains activation centres and decisions.

What if you actually applied these principles in a much more in depth, sophisticated way?

Where the rubber meets the road.

This is what neuroscientist Sam McClure calls where the rubber meets the road. The practical advice arising from all these studies.

He also points out the hippocampus (where memories are made) is now known to be involved in prospecting about the future.

He recommends:

1) Envisioning future rewards. Make them easy to envision. Envision what the reward will do for your life.

So, really imagine how exercise and nutrition will make you feel and look.

2) Change how you frame things.

Frame rewards in different ways. See the exercise session as a reward in itself. Or in relation to food, demotivate appreciation of unhealthy foods, try seeing cookies like inanimate objects like a rock and think of green tea as a reward or treat.

3) Become more myopic in the way rewards are represented.

Attach more positive emotions to healthy foods. The self controlling dieters knew the junk food was tasty, they were just more focused on their goal and choose a 'less tasty' healthy option. Or even better make it so you see the healthy food as tasty and a rewarding. There are plenty of visualisation techniques to do this. Its just most people don't do them, and have no systematic approach.

And don't forget

'neurons that fire together wire together'

The more you use a pathway in the brain, the more you practice, the stronger the connection gets.

And one last thing, aerobic exercise is shown to activate that deliberate dlPFC part of your brain more. It becomes a self fullfilling prophecy, the more you exercise, the better your brain will get at decision making and planning!

Nuts and bolts are easy.

The fitness and nutrition industries have focused on the nuts and bolts, the programme, the recipe. But this is the easy bit, the nuts and bolts.

The hard part is making people stick with it. The future will be the coach who can change mindset.

Some visualisation techniques have been dismissed in the past as pseudoscience. However, neuroscience is now showing us how important envisioning and mindset are in framing your goals, seeing where you want to be and succeeding.

Lastly, associating the process itself as the reward. Taking pleasure in the exercise, looking forward to cooking that healthy meal. The people who stick with exercise are the ones who look forward to going to the gym or for a run. It becomes their passion, their reward.

Or as Adrienne of Yoga with Adriene said this week:

"The journey is the reward, the process is the candy."

Or for another excellent article I read this week about focusing on the process and forgetting goals by James Clear please click here 

In part 4 we will cover memory.


Gazziniga et al (2008) Cognitive Neuroscience

McClure et al (2004) Separte Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards.

Hare et al (2009) Self control in dieters study.

Wilson and Daly (2003) Hot women cause men to discount the future study.

Kable and Glimcher (2010) We want things 'as soon as possible'

Interview with Sam McClure, Introduction to Neuroeconomics MOOC.

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