Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Those little unconscious engines

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It’s generally recognized that we have a highly active unconscious, and scientists have devised many ingenious experiments to tease out and expose its activity. I’m talking about the little engines/processes/subpersonalities or whatever that take on various tasks so the conscious mind, wherein dwells our sense of “self”, won’t have to deal with them: when you’re scanning a crowd, looking for a friend, the face/person recognition engine is highly active and delivers the result to the conscious mind: you “see” your friend’s face, among 20 other similar faces, and you recognize him at once and never think twice about how you did that. (Sometimes you can even play with this little engine: a bush at dusk looks like a person, then you see it’s a bush, but then you can see the person again, etc. Or seeing the shapes in clouds.)

Indeed, I think my sudden “grasp” (after six months of recording and thinking about the data) of what was going on with my food/exercise/weight was simply that a pattern-recognition routine in my unconscious had been pecking away at all that, driven by my conscious attention to those details and my conscious mulling them over in my journal, and somehow, with that much data and that much effort, integrated all that, separated signal from noise, and I “got” it: I recognized the pattern, the interconnections, and the chain of causality in some detail—my understanding of food, exercise, and weight was no longer merely an intellectual understanding residing in my conscious mind. Rather, by the continuing effort, my unconscious mind had grasped the pattern and now had its own essential understanding, so that it could deliver, as it were, the appropriate responses to food and exercise to my conscious mind, much as the little pattern-recognition guy delivered the recognition of my friend’s face: “There he is!” in the latter instance being analogous to “I don’t want to eat that!” in the former.

By presenting the data, pondering them, and maintaining a strong desire for fitness, my unconscious (which has a myriad of tasks going on, so you do have to persist to get its attention and cooperation) joined the game, and at that point it was no longer such a struggle between my conscious and my unconscious. Thus “viewing my food in a new light” is more or less the natural result of “my unconscious now has a new understanding of food.”

In fact, it was on this diet that I became convinced of the reality and action of these little unconscious engines. Despite recording what I was eating each day, and staying well within my own personal guidelines, I was gaining weight or not losing weight, as shown by my thrice-weekly visits and weigh-ins. The counselor worked me to adjust to my personal metabolism the specifics of the diet tailored to my general characteristics (weight, lean body mass, age, level of activity, etc.). So we cut it from 4 servings of starch a day to 3, for example. (It wasn’t all cutting, of course: my usual breakfast lacked sufficient protein, so I added an egg.)

These adjustments helped, but the weight loss still wasn’t happening right. Something was slowing it. I observed in my records that I ended a month the same weight as when I began. Then I noticed myself getting a bite of food in the kitchen, after dinner. It was just a bite, so I didn’t record it, but it did set me thinking.

I realized rather quickly that it wasn’t just one bite when I went into the kitchen, it was a bite (or two) every time I went into the kitchen after dinner. And I went into the kitchen every time I got out of my chair over the course of the evening, which was fairly often. I was eating an entire second dinner—or more—over the course of the evening and recording none of it. Mystery solved!

An obvious and simple solution: no bites of food save at a meal or one of the two daily snacks (which were just a piece of fruit). But implementing that was tricky. I quickly discovered that I was eating the bites unconsciously. The bites were not a conscious decision, and indeed sometimes (after I instituted the no-bites regimen) I would discover myself chewing and realize I had taken a bite when my thoughts and attention were elsewhere—diverted, I think, so the bite could be taken. One of those unconscious guys really wanted those bites—or, in alternative language, the bites had become a habit that I did without thinking about it, like using the turn signal when I’m going to make a turn: I no longer think about it, I just do it automatically. So it was with the bites.

I remember one instance in which The Wife was over and we had just had dinner and were watching a movie (My Dinner with Andre). I was taking the plates into the kitchen, and The Wife said, “No bites” as I went into the kitchen. I laughed and agreed, put the dishes in the sink and the leftovers away, and when I walked back into the living room, I was chewing, and she said, “No bites!” and it was only then that I realized I had taken a bite while putting away the leftovers.

That made me think that these little unconscious processes were not only real, I could detect some of their handiwork. Because certainly it was not me (the conscious me whom I consider to be my self) that took that bite. Consciously, I was not taking a bite and not going to take a bite. But the unconscious found me distracted and took the bite while my attention was elsewhere.

I did extinguish the bites habit (or retrained that little engine, your choice) in the usual way: by maintaining awareness as best I could. I started recognizing—usually by my chewing—that I had taken a bite after the fact. Then, fairly soon, I would detect it as I took the bite. And then I would detect it as I was about to take the bite, and put the fork, still full, back into the pan. Then I would detect the impulse, sometimes as early as when I got out of my chair, sometimes in the kitchen, and I would kill the impulse. Finally, the struggle—want a bite! no!—took place so early in the process that it occurred beneath the level of my consciousness: I was unaware of any impulse, I just wasn’t taking bites.

That discovery and process convinced me utterly that there was more going on in this than I was aware of consciously. But I had indeed discovered that unconscious process at work and retrained it, so my consciousness was at least a player in the game. I just had to be aware that there were other players whom I could not see, and if the ball, instead of sailing into the net, suddenly went another direction, then that was due to one of the players invisible to my eyes.

It’s a control issue. I’m feeling now as though I control what I eat, rather than the food controlling me. But of course the food never controlled me: it’s out there, I’m in here. But I’m in here with all these invisible players who operate according to their own agenda, harmless (there’s your friend’s face!) or not (take a bite!). So the control is not control of food, it’s control of these processes.

I wonder whether Pilates is in on this: Pilates himself called it “Contrology” and his emphasis was on the brain controlling the body. The exercises, as you learn and gradually master them, necessarily open new pathways in the brain (as does, say, learning a piano piece so that you can play it thinking only of expression without having to read individual notes). As I’ve noted, our minds live in that brain, and new pathways of control may well affect our thinking.

The fact is that the “bite” discovery happened after I had had four Pilates sessions, FWIW.

UPDATE: It occurred to me that the locution of talking about “do you control your food or does your food control you?”, attributing control of your actions to an external inert thing like food, is a face-saving device to avoid recognition that the controlling entity is not “out there”, it’s “in here”, with your conscious mind—and it’s not your conscious mind. It’s somewhat unnerving to realize that your conscious self can be (and doubtless is, either often or always) under the control of your unconscious. But at least your conscious and unconscious are in it together and can work together—as when you master a new skill both consciously and unconsciously.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 April 2011 at 7:01 am

Posted in Daily life, Fitness

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