Obesity and Obsession
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Obesity and Obsession • Posted: Nov 20, 2010 11:57:32Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

Many years ago scientists discovered that inserting an electrode into a certain portion of a rat's brain and allowing that rat to self-administer a mild shock resulted in the rat foregoing all other behavior in favor of self-induced electrical stimulation. The rat didn't drink, eat, or even sleep. It just kept hitting the paddle that induced the electrical shock to the so called "pleasure centers" of its brain until it wore itself out and died. Ever since then, scientists have been researching the brain mechanisms and chemical systems that result in the regulation of both human and animal behaviors. The primary dichotomy is between impulse activation and impulse inhibition. But such systems are not simply on or off. They are finely regulated and hierarchically organized with numerous shades of gray over very specific ranges. Those ranges allow for accommodation to a host of environmental conditions. But once environmental conditions change to something beyond the reach of those accommodating ranges, the animal dies.

Eating is one type of behavior that is regulated by several interlocking hierarchically organized binary systems prompting when to eat, what to eat, and how much to each. Errors, short circuits, or disruptive interference in any one of those interlocking systems may result in malnutrition, obesity, or consequent poor mental and physical health in a number of different ways. One study published several months back also found evidence viral infections might be pushing some folks' internal regulatory systems toward obesity.

But internal regulation of behavior is not the whole story. External cues and reinforcements also play a roll. If your internal system is telling you to eat, but the only available food is of poor nutritional value, you are more than likely going to eat that food anyway. Quite understandable. The interesting situation occurs when there is a choice of available food that includes both nutritionally healthy and not so healthy. In that situation, a not insignificant number of people will choose the not so healthy food. Why? Remember that rat with the electrodes in its brain? The hierarchical system for healthy regulation of food intake developed over millennia of evolution is being short circuited, often by social or environmental factors. They go directly for pleasure stimulation and disregard the longterm health consequences. The result: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, social discrimination, depression. We, as parents and citizens, do ourselves a favor if we pay attention to the kinds of environmental cues and social reinforcement we offer our children and fellow humans.

The vast array of distinctly different human behaviors is mind boggling. But at base, each and every one of us is just like that rat, in some way hitting that paddle to in some way stimulate our pleasure centers. The consequence to self and to others is the real difference between all those behaviors. And though many insist negative reinforcement, threats, punishments, and even violence are keys to changing unhealthful or socially irresponsible behavior, the evidence is they are not, mainly because negative reinforcement is not sustainable. At some point all walls disintegrate and fail. What sustainably does change behavior is enlightenment toward ever more richly rewarding pleasures.

May you continue to find such healthful and socially responsible pleasures to pursue.

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010