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Mar152013

How Your Future Self Is Making You Fat (It's Not about Your Kids, Marty)

Suppose I'm a genie, and I'm going to grant you the wish of a perfect holiday.

Stop for a second and form a picture of that holiday. Imagine it in detail. Where would you go? What would you do? What would you see and experience?

Build a vivid picture in your minds eye.

Now, hold on a second because I forgot the catch. At the end of the holiday I'm going to wipe your memory. You can do whatever you like, wherever you like, with whoever you like, but when its over you'll never know what happened.

Does that new information have any effect on your holiday plans? Be honest.

If you're like most people, when I first asked the question you thought of somewhere with amazing landscapes and culture, perhaps the temples of Thailand or the pyramids or the grand canyon. Or maybe you thought of an activity holiday, maybe swimming with dolphins or scuba diving in the great barrier reef.

Or maybe something different, but the motivation would have been the same - wether you realised it or not you wanted to create great memories.

When I gave you the additional information about the mind wipe, that changed. I bet your revised holiday plans were a lot more shallow and hedonistic, because ultimately your only criteria would be to experience immediate and short term pleasure.

What you've just seen is the tension that exists between your experiencing self and your remembering self. Two people you share your head with, both of whom are you, all of which has implications on your ability to live a healthy life.

You think you're one person. Or rather that your mind is a unified entity over which you have a good degree of control. But the modern model of how our brains work says otherwise - it says that your mind is an illusion, a construct you use to make sense of numerous competing agencies, each with different motivations.

Here's another example. I show you a list of movies that includes both frivolous comedies and worthy, "proper" films like Schindler's List. If I ask you to choose one to watch in two weeks time, there's a good chance you'll choose a serious film you perceive as more intellectually stimulating or educational. But if ask you to choose a film to watch immediately you're far more likely to choose the comedy. Instant gratification wins over long term benefit.

We all do this, we make unhealthy choices now because we want a quick buzz and because future consequences like getting fat are too gradual and too far off to offer enough disincentive ( this is called future discounting and it's why we continue to destroy our environment when all evidence shows it will eventually wipe us out).

To make matters worse, we excuse these behaviours by believing we'll make healthy choices in the future to compensate. We falsely attribute qualities to our future selves, like willpower and prudent decision making, even as we are demonstrating our lack of those qualities by eating foods we know are terrible for us.

You may want to be slim, and your remembering self may want to look back upon a life lived in a slim and fit body. Your experiencing self wants to live in a fit body too, but it also wants to have the taste of chocolate in its mouth right now.

This is before we even get into the powerful hormonal drivers of food addiction like dopamine. Dopamine is at the root of drug and alcohol addiction, it even drives romantic love. In a fight between dopamine and willpower, dopamine kicks willpower in the balls and sleeps with its sister for giggles.

So how can you better manage these mad people you share your brain with? These lazy hedonists, these oblivious pleasure seekers.

Your best weapon is knowing they exist, and planning ahead.

Know your willpower, however strong it seems now, will be weak again, so don't have food in your house unless you want to eat it.

Know your ability to make good decisions is finite and degrades as the day goes on, so get your training session in early if you can.

Know that as motivated as you feel right now, your tired and uninspired future self may not be so keen.

Meta-cognition, the ability to rise above the competing thought processes and observe them, can help tip the balance of power back to your more level headed self.

Because who do you want in the driving seat? The responsible, healthy-eating cultural explorer or the guy who wants to party in a Vegas hotel room and then order pizza?

Wait, don't answer that.

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