If you’ve taken psych 101 you probably remember Pavlov’s dogs. If not, let me sum it up. Pavlov’s experiment involved ringing a bell and then providing food to a group of dogs. Soon, he discovered the dogs would salivate just from the ring of the bell even if food wasn’t provided. Sounds like common sense, right? He called this conditioning, that is, our brains learn that two things are linked together and produces an automatic response to something it wouldn’t naturally. Despite this sounding pretty basic, we neglect to think about all the ways we personally have been conditioned.
I, somewhere in the past, and I don’t remember when or how, got into the habit of snacking in front of the tv. Now, I’m not the type to consider celery and peanut butter a snack (maybe an appetizer to a five course snack, sure). No, my snacks are family sized portions of processed, sugary junk foods. I want to binge on these foods the entire time I watch tv, and I want to binge watch Netflix often. That’s a lot of binging. And the second I sit down on the couch in front of the tv, the cravings switch on like a light switch. Those cravings are STRONG. It’s psychological science. My brain has formed an association which has turned my cravings into a reflexive like reaction in response to this particular stimuli.
I have reduced the amount of time I spend watching tv, but sometimes tv can be a good way to destress after a long day (Steve Carell’s voice in The Office takes my anxiety down 5 notches. I have no idea why, and yes, I know it’s kind of creepy.) So can this association, this link formed between neurons in our brain be broken? Well Pavlov, as well as Skinner and many bahavioral psychologists, have asked the same question. When an individual’s conditioned response decreases or stops, this is called extinction. Usually, when the conditioned stimulus (the tv) is presented enough times without the unconditioned stimulus (the sight and smell of food), the conditioned response of hunger/cravings will go away.
But if it was as easy as just having enough willpower to outlast a few cravings, there wouldn’t be quite as many people struggling with this. First, the longer the behavior has taken place, the harder it will be to break the association. And as I said, we don’t often think about the conditioning that is taking place on ourselves, allowing behaviors and stimuli that produce unhealthy responses continue. The other problem is that after all the effort and willpower exerted to fight the conditioned response and not eat in front of the tv (which we might not overcome in the first place, but if we do) the association may disappear for a while and then randomly pop back up.
That’s right. Spontaneous recovery. *eyeroll at both the name and the phenomena itself*
I’m not saying there’s no hope. I think that the first step is looking at our own conditioned responses. What happened just before that craving kicked in? Where were you, what were you doing, who were you with, what were you feeling, what were your senses taking in. Are you feeling hungry because your body truly needs nutrients and energy or because it is a conditioned response. Identify the stimuli.
Stay conscious of disassociating the two things. And if the cravings suddenly pop back up out of the blue remember that the brain is doing what most mammals’ brains do. If you can understand the psychology behind it, you can understand how to overcome it.
I know that might sound impossible or boring or too much thought, but remember there is no magic pill for weight loss or breaking unhealthy habits. Doing the deep work now (psychological insight is deep work) will save you from deep trouble when the unhealthy habit finally catches up to you.