I need help with a strange addiction. I’m not overweight and I don’t overeat. But I’ve learned I will overeat under certain circumstances. Last month my sister was visiting and she kept laughing at my “Pavlovian” eating. She noticed I always went to get food when ads for food were on. I was suspicious of her motives when she mentioned it. Saying I did it “every time” felt like a lie. But I watched myself over the last few months and I’ve learned a lot. She’s wrong. I didn’t get up during lots of commercials. But the truth is I WANTED to get up every single time. I was surprised at how the ads could suddenly make me feel hunger. Is Pavlovian behaviour the same as addictive behaviour? Is there a way for people to change that?
Not so strange really. Addictions all work the same way in the world of the Mind so it doesn’t matter if you’re hooked on meth, food, exercise or getting angry, the mental function is the same just the subject is different.
Here’s how your addiction works: First off, to be like Pavlov’s Dog, you need the person you spend a lot of time with to be doing repetitive patterns of bell-ringing and feeding. It’s the repetition that causes your brain to start to expect a certain response. And, as the Buddhists always say; expectation leads to suffering.
So the bell rings, salivating starts, but the food doesn’t show this time. So they know the salivating isn’t about the food, it’s now about the bell. So your ‘bell’ is the commercials you watch and as a result the capitalists who run television and who create ads, are people with a huge amount of very subtle influence over you.
Your brain knows everything by association. So things are all linked together in a big flat database that makes ideas out of other ideas. So, like Pavolv’s dog and the bell, advertisers know that your brain associates certain sights and sounds with eating. So sizzling and dripping cheese and creamy beverages are things your brain associates with consuming food.
Obviously, a lot of TV advertising is for food. So you start off your TV-watching career and you’re just watching TV. But over time Heinz’s and the Kellogg’s and McDonalds’ and Burger King all ring their bells and urge your senses. You cave in 10% of the time, then 20%, then 30%. And by the time your sister visits you’re at 100% without even noticing it happened.
You weren’t experiencing an addiction as much as you were just prompted to create hunger in your mental space. The real question is why?
I was teaching a group once and a couple had a young son we’ll call Brett. We were at the part in the course where we’re talking about egos and how they form. I noted that Brett’s parents should watch closely, as their son was at the ego-forming age. I noted that when the ego first presents, kids will usually ascribe the voice of our ‘conscience’ (when really it’s our ego), to someone, or something else, just because their brains know that voices come from somewhere.
Maybe it’s a stuffed animal, or more likely an invisible friend, but they eventually develop an excuse for that voice. and they get so used to thinking that way that we eventually become blind to it. We don’t realize we are no longer seeing the world, we are seeing our thoughts about the world. But before they could even start to watch for Brett’s ego, he introduced it to them.
They had just finished lunch and Angela had belted the two other boys into their car seats in the second row and she’d climbed into the driver’s seat of the van when she looked in the rear view mirror and she could see Brett looking around the van quickly, as though he was tracking something.
Angela jumped out of the van, opened the side door and leaned into the third row where Brett was. “Are you okay? Is there a bee in the van Brett?” She was concerned because she’d told her husband for several weeks to deal with the hive the bees had built in the eaves of the garage. But Brett shook his head. No bee.
“I… I… I think… it’s a voice.”
His brow wrinkled as he considered a weird idea. “Yeah.” He paused. “I think it’s in my head.”
Angela is immediately fascinated because of where we are in the course. “You hear a voice in your head Brett?”
“What’s it saying?”
Brett gives this a good think before finally replying, “It says it wants Chicken McNuggets.”
“What?!?!” Angela responded, horrified. “But Brett, we just ate a big lunch.”
Brett nodded his agreement. “I know. I’m not hungry. But it says it wants Chicken McNuggets.”
“It, says.” At first it’s so strange they see it as separate from themselves. Because it is strange. Those words aren’t the kid’s. They belong to the parent or a character on TV or a commercial. The kid is just replaying them.
“Don’t you eat those cookies!” they’ll hear as they then quietly steal cookies. Soon that voice is so ubiquitous, so consistent, so common that we cease to differentiate it from ourselves. We become word-based, symbol-based people with mechanical reactions and interactions. We do what we’re told is right, not necessarily what we feel is right.
So you’re like little Brett, only farther along. You’ve lived like this a while and so your voice is so subtle it’s invisible. Then your schedule created an opportunity for you to spend more time with some professional brainwashers who have used TV and your natural senses against you to create a need for a Big Mac at ten at night. But if you’re too tired to go get one, you’ll still go to the fridge and grab a slice of cheese….
The nice thing is that this is something that can be made conscious. You’ll start by catching yourself after you’ve eaten. Or as you’re making it. But because you’re watching for it, you’ll see it sooner and sooner as your senses sharpen.
Eventually you will be able to sense the desire to go, and you’ll stop it all in one deft motion. You need only familiarize yourself with yourself. Just watch, this will be the future of dieting apps. So don’t presume you know you very well at all. Just like all of us, you’re driven by those little Brett-voices. Unless you get conscious, you’ll be whoever those voices tell you to be.
This is why it’s so important for all of us to become aware of what we’ve been taught you to say to ourselves. In the end this is a totally breakable habit and it’s not even hard. Just start interrupting it and eventually it will disappear due to a lack of use. Almost the same way it was formed. Just think of something different. It’s that easy. It really is.
I do hope you’ve found this helpful. Because I don’t want your diet and ergo your health to be dictated to you by a corporate entity with no soul. But whether you continue to eat that food or not, please enjoy your day either way.
peas. s 😉
P.S. You might also be interested in reading Cruel People.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.