Twister for the Brain

Buckle up. This one will require you to twist your brain into knots. It may be a bumpy ride.

I am fascinated by yesterday’s post about Guilty Pleasures when I saw how much guilt we have around food. This isn’t the first time I’ve oberved this. Meg Fowler did a List of Shame over at her website a while ago, and probably about half the responses centre around food (this is borne out by my own and other responders’ lists). 50% of the guilt we carry around is food-related. Isn’t that amazing and exhausting at the same time?

I recently read a review of one those books that discuss the The French Paradox (sorry, I’m not sure which of the books it was). You know the French Paradox: why is it that the French, known for eating food that is supposed to be bad for them, are thinner and generally healthier than we North Americans? I think here is the crux of the matter: a group of French people and a group of North Americans were asked for their responses to various foods. To the words chocolate cake the French responded “Celebration,” the North Americans responded “Shame.”

That isn’t the part that’s going to twist your brain up. But you’re going to have to follow me on a bit of a circuitous path here.

I have developed a passion for brain science as I have children with learning disabilities. Last week I attended a lecture by Howard Eaton about the Arrowsmith programme that he offers at his school. The Arrowsmith program is one of the only programs in the world that is about REMEDIATING learning disabilities. You read that right. The majority of children attending that program for 2-4 years (depending on the severity of their problems entering the program) once re-integrating into the public school system will not only NOT need extra resource time, they lose their special-needs profile altogether. It’s like intense physiotherapy for the brain. The key word is NEUROPLASTICITY: the ability of the brain to change, to re-wire, to re-map. The key phrase

Things that fire together, wire together.

So, I was so hyped up after this seminar I couldn’t sleep so I pulled out my copy of “What the Bleep do We Know” and watched it. (Now, to be clear, I’m not a wholesale subscriber to what’s laid out in this film. I think when you include an ‘expert’ who is channelling a 35,000 year-old mystic, that there’s bound to be some problems with your credibility. Nevertheless…) There is a whole section in that movie about the chemistry of emotions in the brain. Here is my lay-person’s understanding of what they discussed. The hypothalamus continually releases chemicals in response to our emotional states. There is a different chemical ‘recipe’ for every emotional state. These chemicals are attracted to our cells which have docking stations on their surfaces for these chemicals. If we are continually releasing the same recipe the cells will actually ADAPT to make more docking stations for THAT PARTICULAR RECIPE. Following me so far? So, for instance, if we are angry a lot, we will actually start making a cell that has a biochemical tendency to prefer the recipe of anger.

Here is the mind bender. Dr. Joseph Dispenza D.C. who is elaborating on this says something like:

We will seek out the situations that give us the emotional chemicals that our cells need.

Did you get that? We will actually SEEK OUT the situations that give us the emotional chemicals that our cells have adapted themselves to need!

So, here is my mind-bending question of the day. What if we’re not actually addicted to Big Macs and ripple chips with dill pickle dip (mmmm, ripple chips with dill pickle dip)? What if we are addicted to guilt, and we are just seeking out the things that will give us our guilt fix? It’s not that we’re enjoying the guilt, we have developed a biochemical need to experience guilt. And we’ve developed our preferred means of acquiring that guilt. (Remember: things that fire together, wire together). I need guilt. My preferred method of guilt delivery is a Big Mac. Instead of fast-food think of it as fast-guilt.

I challenge you to an experiment. Choose an emotional state that you find yourself in frequently, preferably a negative one, since those are the ones we ultimately want to change. Why do you perceive that you are frequently in that state? If anger, maybe you perceive your family is doing things that frustrate you. If it’s guilt, maybe you’re not sticking to some self-improvement plan you set out for yourself. Now, decide that for today you are not going to respond with the same emotional response that this situation normally triggers for you. Now, observe what happens. (I know I should now sign off and let you tell me your results, but I’m so excited by this, I’m going to tell you what I think is going to happen, thus ruining any credibility my little experiment will bear. Ah well, there goes another Nobel Prize. Don’t look if you want to see if your experience squares up with my bet).  


My bet, is that four or five OTHER situations will arrive somehow that trigger that emotion.

That, as unbelievable as it sounds, is YOU SEEKING OUT your emotional fix.

I’m still reeling from that realization, and what that means.

So, how do we change it? You know what? I’m not sure. But I do know it’s possible BECAUSE the brain is plastic. It can be re-wired and re-shaped. Here’s my non-expert views on change:

1) I think awareness is the first step. To be able to say, “Wow, I just totally did that to get my guilt fix.” That is huge.

2) Here’s the major obstacle to success. Withdrawl hurts. There’s now way around it. It makes you feel icky and out of sorts. The only thing you can do is recognize that that’s what your experiencing. Here’s another twister for you. Enjoying your guilty pleasures without the guilt just the pleasures and perhaps your desire for these illicit goodies will vanish once they’re not guilt-inducing anymore. And pleasure (I’m theorizing) might be a great antidote to withdrawl symptoms.

3) Re-mapping the brain takes focus and energy. For instance, say a person lacks the ability to find the main point of a paragraph. (That is one of the dysfunction the Arrowsmith program tackles.) Developing that skill to an average level can take three years of attentive building of that brain map, working for one school period a day, five days a week. You have to go into the areas of weakness and strengthen them. Likewise, the more we re-channel our energies into happiness and peace the better our brains will get at it. The more our cells will adapt to have docking stations that prefer those chemical recipes. (God, I’ve suddenly become a proponent of The Secret. I totally did not see that coming.)

And now, amazingly 1,177 words later I have totally exhausted everything I wanted to say about that.

I’m signing off to re-map my brain and re-jig my emotional chemistry. I dare you to put THAT on your to-do list.

But seriously, let me know what you think. Did it blow your mind as much as it did mine?

About Tentative Equinox North

Theatremaker, Homemaker, Thoughtmaker. Great hair, Probably looking forward to my next nap.
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4 Responses to Twister for the Brain

  1. Colleen says:

    My first thought upon reading this was as follows:

    “I wonder if there are an unusually high number of fat catholics?” And I’m feeling guilty for just admitting that I had that thought. Should I have just eaten some chips and dip and at least enjoyed the guilt?

    So just exactly how many years do you think I will need to undo my 12 years of catholic education?

    Also, guilt is a great parenting tool. I don’t know that I want to get rid of all of it. Perhaps when eating dill pickle dip and ripple chips. I’ll give you that. But I do think you’re right. I enjoy and seek out the guilt to a certain extent. And I have had the epiphany that when I refrain from eating all those guilty pleasure foods, but allow myself one day a week when I don’t have to think, “YOU SHOULD NOT BE EATING THAT!!!”, the pleasure in eating that food is ‘celebration’ and not ‘shame’.

    But rewiring my brain to not like guilt? I certainly think the brain can be rewired to fix a variety of issues, why not our attitudes?

  2. Pingback: Private Guilt vs. Public Judgment « Tentative Equinox

  3. Diana says:

    I got here through a web search ‘addicted to guilt’. I have been trying to understand my persistent behavioral problems and came to the conclusion that I must be addicted to guilt! I’m glad I found your blog post on this. I think it makes sense. I will try your theory solution.

  4. I hope it works for you Diana. Just remember that change takes time and persistence and feels icky for the first little while. That’s just your brain adjusting to something new.

    Get the book “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, it’s got a lot of great information to assist in change.

    Best wishes to you on your journey.

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