Weight Loss: Before You Move Your Muscles, You Have to Move Your Mind
Your willpower is a muscle that can be trained. Here is a wealth of scientific information to help you understand your behavior and engineer a successful health and weight-loss plan.
Sylvia Tara holds a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California at San Diego and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She was a consultant with McKinsey & Company and has worked at the world’s largest biotechnology companies. Sylvia Tara's book is The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You.
Sylvia Tara: I have a chapter in my book in which I talk about how to build a self-control muscle. It's really important to do because when they do, again, FMRI studies of some dieter's brain people who have lost 30 pounds and managed to keep it off for three years or more they have them hold a lemon lollipop in their mouth and the people who successfully lost weight their reward center lights up pretty brightly. They're pretty excited by this lemon lollipop, more so perhaps than people who are obese or normal weight but haven't lost the weight, haven't been successful dieters. The other part that lights up in their brain is that associated with restraint so it's self-control. And that lights up very brightly showing that they have control over this emotional response so at the same time they're getting excited they're also having a high self-control activity. The other people, normal or obese people are not having that self-control light up with the lemon lollipop.
So it shows that one of the reasons we're able to stay on for three years or more on their diet is that they've gotten this really good control over what they eat every day and they've managed to keep weight off for years. Now any diet that you want to stay on or that you like it really does require willpower to stay on it. And I have to say that it might sound like it's something obvious but because a diet doesn't it just last for six months it last for years and years because the effect of our lower metabolism lasts for years you have to be able to stay on something for years. And one of the reasons that people come off quite a bit is they get tired of being on a diet. No one wants to stay on it for years. You have to kind of build these self-control muscles, these habits if you will make it part of your lifestyle so that it's automatic, it's not a big effort for you anymore.
And so in the chapter I do wright about some techniques we can use because a diet it's like an eating regiment for the long haul. There's small things we can do and we can build it up into larger accomplishments later. Some of the small things are there's a study that shows that just managing your posture, keeping your back straight for two weeks, just stopping the swearing for two weeks, those people are able to manage more stressful tasks later, they're able to do more tasks that involve physical discomfort after that two week period. So in a way they kind of start exercising self-control in one dimension but it's leading into this other realm as well.
And then there's another study were they pay people to use a gym eight times in one month and they pay another group to use it once a month and then they don't pay anyone at all the next month. And the people who have been using the gym for eight times, they were paid to go eight times they just start just using the gym without getting paid and so they've built up this habit. And so you can start small, start with small things, make them a habit and then build up to bigger things. There's also something called temptation bundling. And so we compare a want activity with a should activity. No one really wants to do a should activity all the time. But another study they had people listen to a really juicy audio novel and some people could only listen at the gym while they work out, other people they say take it you can take it home listen whenever you want. And the people where the novel is tied to the gym they go to the gym much more frequently than the people who get to listen to this novel all the time.
And in fact after the experiment is over that group of people actually wants to pay to stay on the experiment because it's so successful that it forces them to go to the gym all the time. And so we compare like a should activity with a want activity to get us to do those things and hopefully those things then become habits over time. But it is a muscle and even willpower you have to give it a little bit of a break. And so when people do a should activity all the time they get fatigued and they show healthcare workers they're supposed to wash their hands all day. And they start doing it less at the end of the day. And so when they give them longer breaks in between their shift they find that they'll continue to do it, they'll wash their hands through to the end of the day. And so it's important to take the breaks, engineer in a break into this long-term regiment that you have.
Another good experiment that really illustrates that is there's one where they have people hold hand exercising equipment, they have them do this hand exercise. And after a while they separate to the group into two and let one group watch a really happy movie and one has to watch a sad movie. And when they come back in the room and they're supposed to continue this exercise the group that watched a happy movie they're ready to go, they're at it, they're able to do it. The group that watched a sad movie there depleted, they just don't feel like doing this exercise any more. So whatever is that really you motivate you, that excites you, that gives you a little bit of a lift or a relieve, engineer that into your day if you can somehow, into your week. Make sure that you're relaxing every once in a while rewarding yourself in some way that this doesn't become a slog.
And the reason I do talk about willpower is on the horizon right now there are some things you can do to manage weight. We have gastric bypass surgery, we have hormone replacement therapy if you really want that, there are diet pills you can get and then there's diet and exercise. And if you really need a medical intervention everyone of them has a risk benefit profile and you really need to discuss that with your doctor. If you've gotten that level where it's really medically necessary for you to have one of those interventions that's a different discussion. But for the here and now it's diet and exercise I'm sorry to say. And there are things on the horizon, there's possibly lepton injections for people who've lost weight, there's possibly injecting brown fat, which we can get into that too. There are things out there but for now we're stuck with what we have, the technologies we have and the abilities that we have. And so diet and exercise is still important. You have to be very smart about it. You have to understand your hormones, your other things that are making you fat. And then you have to be able to stay on whatever that regiment is that you pick. And that's why willpower comes in. But the book is full of many more things than just willpower and diet and exercise.
Willpower is one of the most elusive qualities to get a handle on, but according to Dr Sylvia Tara, biochemist and author of The Secret Life of Fat, your willpower can be trained like a muscle. We have all sorts of medical interventions for weight loss and new procedures on the horizon, but there is always a risk-benefit trade off to these measures. What we have here and now, she says, is diet and exercise. These work best of all, the only hurdle in your way is changing your behavioral patterns to embrace them. Here, Tara presents a list of ways to apply what we’ve learnt from psychological studies towards your fitness and health goals – from temptation bundling, to reward schemes and just getting past the two weeks it takes to form a good habit – or break a bad one. Sylvia Tara is the author of The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You.
Sylvia Tara is the author of The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You.
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One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?
Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."
Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.
Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.
The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."
That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"
The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.
Some back story
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.
The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.
Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.
There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.
A Dunbar Correlation
Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?
"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.
I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.
Professor Dunbar's response:
"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."
I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:
"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."
In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.
Friendship, kinship and limitations
"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."
These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.
"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.
As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."
We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.
In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."
This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.
If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.
Gray matter matters
One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."
It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷
It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."
(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.
In the end
Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.
Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.
Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.
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