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Priming the mind to suit yourself

If you have an active imagination, there is little you cannot convince your brain to think. And in doing that, there's a lot you can do to control the way you live your life. In what could start a do-it-yourself weight-loss fad, a new study in the journal Science reports that you can fend off flab by imagining that you are stuffing yourself with your favourite high-calorie diet derailer. Sanchita Sharma writes.

health and fitness Updated: Dec 12, 2010 00:48 IST
Sanchita Sharma

If you have an active imagination, there is little you cannot convince your brain to think. And in doing that, there's a lot you can do to control the way you live your life.

In what could start a do-it-yourself weight-loss fad, a new study in the journal Science reports that you can fend off flab by imagining that you are stuffing yourself with your favourite high-calorie diet derailer.

Simply put, instead of avoiding the thought of whatever you love eating, thinking of eating a lot of it will help you eat less when presented with the real thing. It works only when you think about eating the food, repeatedly imagining the food itself in your mind's eye does not stop you from gorging on it.

Psychologists believe that since feedback from digestive system to the brain is too slow to stop you from overdosing, manipulating the mental processes that control eating can help you stop in time.

This effect of lessening response to a stimulus by repetition is called habituation and can be used for other purposes, such as quitting smoking. Instead of suppressing an urge to smoke, people trying to quit should imagine inhaling, drag by drag, to lower their chances of lighting up.

There's more in the brain than managing food and tobacco addiction. Research has shown that counting money works like an aspirin to lower pain. Pain, love, money and cocaine light up the same area of the brain, and since money is a substitute for social acceptance, by extension it also lowers physical discomfort and pain.

An unrelated experiment found that people primed to think about old people started stopping and walking slowly than they normally did.

Psychologists call it priming, a term used to describe thinking about one thing subconsciously triggering a related response. Priming people is not some form of hypnotism or subliminal suggestion but a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

Findings such as this one have cropped up sporadically over the last few years. Two years ago, Yale researchers manipulated people's assessment of a stranger with mugs of hot and cold coffee. A laboratory assistant holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee was asked to request college students heading for the lab for a hand with the mug.

The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they read about later as being cold, unsocial and selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java before entering the lab.

Other studies have shown that people tend to tidy up more thoroughly when there's a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air and become more competitive if there's a laptop in sight without being aware of the change, or what triggered it.

Decisions, whether to stop eating, quit smoking or stand in the corridor with a hot cup of java, are like a software programme and your brain is the chief operator. How you behave depends on how you tinker your brain to run it, both conscious and subconsciously. This also explains some of the more mystifying realities of our behaviour, such as being generous to a complete stranger or snapping at a friend for no apparent reason.

What works in our favour is that the brain can be primed to suit our desires, so if you want to have one less scoop of Bavarian chocolate icecream tonight, start thinking about eating several scoops of it right away.