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The hunger-boredom paradigm explained by scientists
Johns Hopkins University professor Susan Carnell explains the neuroscience behind eating out of boredom (and how to stop).
- True hunger builds gradually and can be satisfied by any source of food, while emotional eating (which includes eating out of boredom) is insatiable and generally leads to feelings of guilt or shame.
- One 2015 study suggests we eat to escape the self-awareness that comes in moments of boredom or inactivity, while Johns Hopkins University professor Susan Carnell explains there may be a neuroscientific reason we eat to escape boredom.
- Drinking water, occupying your brain with a hobby or craft, exercising or striking up a fun conversation with someone are all ways you can beat the boredom-hunger paradigm.
We all know the feeling of being insatiably hungry, but have you ever stopped to consider what kind of hunger you're really feeling and what that means?
True hunger builds gradually, and any type of food you find will satisfy your appetite. Once you've eaten enough, you stop. There are usually no lingering feelings of shame because you're providing your body with the energy it needs, even if the meal wasn't so healthy.
Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is an unhealthy response to stress that causes cravings for various types of food. This kind of hunger isn't as easy to stop and leads to over-eating, which usually makes you feel guilty.
Boredom hunger, where you aren't hungry but snack out of boredom (most of us do this while we watch Netflix), sometimes falls under the category of "emotional eating." Even if we aren't overly emotional at the time, stress and boredom mix well together when you're avoiding a task you find difficult or some other problem you don't want to address.
Eating due to boredom explained by science
Escaping self-awareness and a surge of dopamine are two main reasons people eat when they are bored.
Photo by Andrey_Popov on Shutterstock
There are many reasons why you may find yourself illuminated by the refrigerator light every time you're feeling a bit restless.
A 2015 study suggests that we eat to escape our self-awareness.
"Being bored affectively marks an appraised lack of meaning in the present situation and in life," according to the researchers of this study. "Boredom increases eating in an attempt to distract from this experience, especially among people high in self-awareness."
Three studies were conducted to see how eating habits were affected by boredom. In the first study, boredom positively predicted calorie, fat, carb, and protein intake for the participants. In the second, a high (compared to low) boredom task increased the desire to snack compared to eating something healthy. In the third study, people who had high (compared to low) self-awareness consumed the most food during their peak times of boredom. Something important to note about the final study is that the subjects with increased self-awareness liked to eat exciting healthy food as well as exciting unhealthy food.
This suggests the act of selecting or cooking healthy recipes may play a factor in decreasing boredom.
The neuroscience of eating and boredom...is dopamine to blame?
Susan Carnell, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, believes there is another reason we may be searching out food to satisfy our bored minds.
According to Carnell, dopamine likely plays a role in the boredom-hunger paradigm. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is crucial to our motivation levels. Dopamine is present during sex, when we fall in love, and when we're satisfying an addiction — it's a pleasure-reward reaction that drives our motivations to do things that give us even more dopamine.
"The release of dopamine in the brain can be so stimulating and motivating that rats will lever-press for it to the exclusion of other crucially important activities like sleeping and eating," Carnell explained.
People who have naturally lower levels of dopamine are more likely to seek out and become addicted to dopamine-producing substances or activities like alcohol, drugs, and gambling.
Tracing this back to eating out of boredom, Carnell added that it's very likely that when we are bored or unhappy, our dopamine neurons are inactive. When we eat due to boredom, this can be a way of "waking up" our dopamine neurons so we can feel excited again.
5 easy ways to beat the boredom-hunger paradigm
How can I stop eating when I'm bored?
Photo by Brian A Jackson on Shutterstock
Occupy yourself by doing something fun.
Whether it's checking something off your to-do list, starting a craft like scrap-booking, or going for a nice walk, one of the best things you can do when you're feeling hungry due to boredom is to cure the boredom.
Doing something to occupy your time, even just temporarily, will likely get your mind out of the fridge and focused on something else until the hunger passes.
Dehydration and thirst are very commonly mistaken for hunger. Instead of reaching for a bag of chips next time you're feeling hungry, have a large glass of water first. You can even add a splash of lemon or lime to the water to trick your mind into thinking this is a little treat.
Keep your mouth busy.
Sometimes pretending as though you're eating is enough to fill the need to eat, especially when you're not hungry. Chewing gum is a great replacement for eating food you don't need to be eating.
Another idea to keep your mouth occupied is to call a friend you haven't heard from in a while or start a fun conversation with your spouse or kids. Conversations are a great way to distract your mind from eating when you're not really hungry.
Do something physical.
If Dr. Carnell is right, what you need is a big surge of dopamine, so why not get physical? Exercise sends a rush of dopamine throughout your system (the same as snacking on some popcorn might), and it's way more healthy.
You can slide on your running shoes and go for a jog or you can lay on the carpet and do some ab exercises while you watch Netflix. Either one will accomplish the same goal.
Wait out the boredom to see if you're really hungry.
Give yourself 30-60 minutes to determine whether what you're feeling is hunger due to boredom, or hunger due to really being hungry. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. True hunger will build and remain consistent, but emotional hunger (or boredom hunger) will fade as your mind becomes occupied with other things.
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.