Friday, April 19, 2019

Retrospective #63: Impulse Control and Metacognition

Maybe 15 years ago, in an effort to understand how (not why) I had “fallen off the wagon” with respect to my Very Low Carb Ketogenic Diet (VLCKD), I developed an interest in the subject of impulse control. A friend on Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Forum (I’m a Type 2 diabetic), suggested I set up a “Google Alert” on the subject, so I did.
One of the first hits introduced me to the term “metacognition,’ which literally means “knowing about knowing.” For my study of impulse control, I translated this to “thinking about thinking.” So, I started a “thread” on “Impulse Control and Metacognition” on the Forum. It got about 50 replies and 3800 views. It was an interesting discussion.
An early reply on the thread from the Forum Moderator suggested that impulse eating might actually be a physiological rather than a psychological issue. She pointed out that Dr. Bernstein has mentioned that with beta cell burnout there is less amylin production, and low amylin levels mean the brain isn’t getting the message that you are not hungry. But I wasn’t interested in finding a pharmacological approach to the problem.
There is also the leptin/ghrelin hormone interaction, but again hormone signaling to/from the hypothalamus is too high brow and still a developing area of science. I wanted to keep my experiment simple and personal, so I started.
In the discussion, I pointed out that when I have been tempted to snack before dinner, or reach into the bread basket in a restaurant, or hit the freezer for ice cream before bedtime, I was aware that a finite idea had entered my mind: “the temptation.” The idea was usually dismissed quickly, but then frequently returned, sometimes quickly and sometimes more than once. On its return, I have sometimes acted on it, always to my later shame and chagrin. I would beat myself up. That was an emotional response. I wanted to explore a more rational response.
My first thought was to put “the idea” out of mind when the temptation first presented. Just deny the thought a foothold. I cleared the brain the way I do when I put my head on the pillow at night to fall asleep. By not “allowing” the thought to stay on the brain, or by substituting another thought for “the temptation,” it went away. It did not persist. If it returned, I just created another distraction. I changed the subject. It could be another idea, a simple distraction, or it could be an action. Whatever it was, the concept was to catch the “bad” thought “in the bud.”
Examples: If I am eating in a restaurant with others and the bread basket is presented, I take it and pass it on. Or I start a conversation (not related to bread). Recently, when eating alone in a restaurant, I distracted myself by becoming engrossed in a newspaper. Another time I watched and listened (unobtrusively) to people at another table. In other words, I quickly took action to side track “the temptation.” Actions are better than abstract ideas like “will power” and “steely resolve.” You have to be limber, imaginative, and prepared for temptation, and act.
Of course, one of the very best ways to suppress “temptation” is for food to be out of sight. If I can see it, I get the idea to eat it! If I don’t see it, I don’t get the idea, usually – even though I know the ice cream is in the freezer or the nuts are in the pantry. The actual sight of food is the “trigger,” and avoiding the sight is the best solution. The difference between seeing the food and not seeing it, for me, is huge. It has nothing to do with hunger or noshing. I can be mildly ketogenic (with low serum insulin) and a stable blood glucose and still cave at the sight of food.
Others have dealt with impulse control in different ways. Some use “healthy fears,” others use the fear of catastrophic outcomes. For me, fears are both too negative and too extreme. But whatever you do to undo or relearn a behavior, even using an irrational fear, it is, in a way, a rational process. It allows you to exercise the mind and be in control of the outcome.
Quickly supplanting the initial temptation with a diversionary response – either thought or action – is my kind of metacognition. Thinking about thinking is the essential precursor, and a diversionary thought is often sufficient. The best outcome, however, is a diversionary action. Quoting Alfred Korzybski from his preface to “Science and Sanity, “…if they are not applied but merely talked about, no results can be expected.”

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