It wasn't long ago that modern medicine purported that 90% of the brain was unused, a spectacular assertion to conceal our almost complete ignorance of brain function. The rapid rate of research in the past two decades has since shown how much there is to learn but also left us in awe of our own internal computing capacity.
Without a more complex understanding of brain function, computers, ironically, serve as the layperson's most apt and comprehensible analogy for how the brain works. Many people still see computers as more powerful, valuing the brute force of swift computation over the sophistication of the brain's learning, memory and recognition prowess. What is most appealing about a computer is that what you see is what you get. Ask a question and you can easily get an answer. Use an app and the function is clear. By comparison, the vagaries of what actually occurs in our brain remains very hazy.
In truth, incorporating the knowledge of brain function into modern life is a challenge. The unique element of being human is our self-awareness: a topic addressed by philosophers for centuries. It is our blessing and our curse. Forced to face the reality of human limitations, a uniquely human experience, people have endlessly searched for comfort through religion, power or substances, to name a few of the largely ineffective solutions. In our current world, much of the comfort stems from a sense of direction and purpose, or more succinctly self-determination.
It's a modern-day myth that hard work and confidence can lead to success. Underlying this goal is anyone's ability to harness their mind for a single purpose; ultimately, we are in control. The most confusing and perhaps most disconcerting realization is the concept that the majority of our brain functions unconsciously. It is preprogrammed to push onwards and, much like the heart, function completely out of awareness. That's fine when we are discussing the gastrointestinal system or neurological reflexes, but it's disturbing to many when it concerns problem solving or personal relationships. To think of our brains more like computers means the triumph of self-control and willpower over the unconscious, automatic brain systems that keep us alive and well. Many people feel lost without self-control as the ultimate tool. But that makes the true implication of brain science tough to process. If 90% of our brain power has been in use the whole time, just not within our awareness, then who are we?
The general consensus that individual motivation and conscious decisions should dictate daily life has clear implications in addressing weight and food. In this scenario, willpower is everyone's default excuse for diet failures or eating lapses. In fact, the general credo is that willpower, along with some common-sense knowledge about food, is the only way to manage eating when surrounded by excess. And this commonly held belief is the central building block for all of the marketed schemes to manage eating. Gladly, industry will capitalize on our willingness to accept that diet failures are our own fault! It's too easy to vilify the companies making a profit and not recognize the larger need to believe that the perfect diet or ideal weight management solution is just within our grasp. That's not to say we should blame ourselves, but that the alternative explanation, one that incorporates innate responses to food and the limitations of sheer willpower, remains too much to handle. A more reasonable food plan with moderate results that still demands substantial effort has little appeal. The goal is a quick fix with miraculous results, short-term effort followed by a return to life as we know it. This construct, created by individual desire as much as industry, ensures the repeated failures of any new eating scheme and the continuation of society's obsession with how to eat. We all unwittingly believe in the newest, wholly unproven diet and accept that its failure is always our own fault.
Questioning the willpower hypothesis can infuriate those who have spent their adult life bouncing from diet to diet. After years of obsessing about weight loss and dieting, no one wants to believe that the way we eat and what we weigh is largely predetermined. Who wants to think the endless dieting has all been for nought? These naysayers point to the segment of the population that seems to be able to eat when hungry and stop when full, despite access to plentiful food, and say these people have it all figured out. If they can do it, then anyone can. It's just a matter of self-control.
It's not hard to find a member of this group, especially one who is smug enough to think they have all the answers, that their own relationship with food is the solution to the scourge of obesity. The lack of interest in, at least to most everyone else, typically irresistible foods may very well be a coveted trait today but sure isn't any sign of superior willpower. It's just one of the ways humans are born relating to food. Ask a member of this group what their trick is. Not one person can describe a conscious series of thoughts or actions to explain their formidable restraint. It is apparent that willpower is instead the other end of the spectrum of human reaction to food, a variation of the innate way people eat. The emergence of unlimited foods designed to appeal to our base desires reveals the range of human response, from insatiable appetite to a total lack of interest. There are evolutionary explanations for both: overeating in times of plenty triggers fat storage and protects against famine; and delayed gratification leaves excess food for external food storage for the future. Both biological reactions to times of plenty are beneficial. The fundamental challenge is to recognize how we are all hard-wired to respond to the current food environment. Accepting the fact that we are preprogrammed to eat in a certain way is a very bitter pill to swallow. It's anathema to self-determination, that our brains function independently to dictate how and what we eat; or that the availability and quantity of food sets up many, if not the majority of people, to struggle with food; or that no diet or food elimination is the cure for eating in the modern world. So instead we live in the communal delusion that willpower is the final salvation, self-control is just a state of mind.
Part V soon to follow.