Sunday, May 15, 2011

Live Now, Pay Later

One thing above all else raises us above the 'lower' animals. We have the ability to contemplate the future, and imagine the wonderful things we can accomplish if we set a target and work consistently toward that end. They, with their limited mental faculties, can only live in the 'here and now.' They have no concept of 'deferred gratification.' Pigeons can be trained to resist an immediate food reward if they know they'll get a bigger and tastier prize a short while after, but they'll wait no more than a few seconds. Monkeys can hold back for a minute or two, while bigger brained apes have the self control to wait twenty minutes or longer. Humans, with their highly developed cerebral hemispheres, can do even better. If they're so inclined, they can choose to go on a forty day fast to purify their souls, or risk premature death by following a protracted hunger strike. This faculty of self-determination raises us way above our fellow creatures.

But there's another brain function which nullifies that power. This we share with all other animals. Deep in the limbic system of our brain there's a primordial 'pleasure centre' which is activated when we have sex, eat or take psychedelic drugs. When electrodes are placed in this area, attached to an on-off lever, animals will give up everything else and frantically press the lever to get an ecstatic high. This is the root cause of addictive behaviour. The alcoholic buys oblivion today for the price of liver cirrhosis tomorrow. To get a short term rush of adrenaline, the gambler gives no thought for the poverty he'll suffer when his luck runs out. The same applies to the shopaholic, who run up credit card debts buying jewellery and clothes they know they can't afford. Food junkies, through their short-termism, suffer a similar fate.

Somehow we must learn to strike a proper balance between immediate pleasure and long term rewards. If we do this we'll overcome the tendency to put on weight, and gain a raft of other benefits. Psychologists at Columbia University, New York discovered this when they submitted children to a 'marshmallow' test, and then followed them up in later life. They found that youngsters who had the strength of mind to resist eating a marshmallow, on the promise that they'd be given a second in a few moments' time, gained better exam results and secured higher paid jobs when they left school. They also enjoyed superior overall health and more successful marriages. The good news is that this admirable level of self discipline can be acquired by patient practice.

A test carried out at the State University of New York showed that people who work to improve their posture over a two week period, find it easier to carry out other tasks that require similar self-control. The same conclusion was reached by the marshmallow experimenters, who said: 'Sticking to a plan to go to the gym or exercising other forms of self-control can, over time, boost your resolve in other domains.' All of which means that you can achieve lifetime weight control if you give less attention to the pleasures of the 'here and now' and pay more thought to the rewards you want to achieve a few years hence. This deferred gratification is in line with the affirmation of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, the American author and poet, who wrote: 'There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul.'

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