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” behaviour. She observed that I always went to get food during commercials on TV. I was suspicious of her motives when she mentioned it, and saying I did it “every time” felt ridiculous. So I watched myself over the last few months and I’ve been surprised. 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 badly I wanted to get up and how important the kitchen seemed. 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 doing repetitive patterns of bell-ringing and feeding. Because it’s the repetition that causes your brain to start to expect it, 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 corporate television 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. And 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 Campbells and Kellogs 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. Because you weren’t experiencing an addiction, you were just hungry. 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 and I noted that they should watch their son as he’s about at the right age, and that when the ego first presents they’ll usually ascribe the voice to somewhere just because their brains know that voices come from somewhere. So 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 and 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. 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. “Brett we just ate.” Brett nodded his agreement.
“I know. I’m not hungry. But it says it wants Chicken McNuggets.”
“It.” At first it’s so strange they see it as separate from themselves. Because it is. 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 your 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. Don’t presume you know you very well at all. You’re driven by those little Brett-voices. Unless you get conscious, you’ll be whoever they told you to be. So it’s good for you to become aware of what they taught you to say to yourself.
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 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.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.