Temptation makes me test my blood
I get an increased desire to test my blood if I’m feeling hungry, or am tempted by food. I’ve noticed this recently. If I’m feeling hungry in general or, as happened yesterday, am offered brownies for tea when staying with the family, I have to wrestle with my self control. All diabetics will be familiar with this – “I know that sugary snack is bad for me, but it will taste so good!” I seem to use blood tests to reinforce my powers of will power. If I’m tempted, I test, and if my blood sugar is high (above 7), then I don’t have any excuse to eat the snack. And in general I don’t! But I have expended mental energy thinking about it.
I’ve also noticed that at work, I find that my concentration can suffer if I am thinking about food. Another observation is that if we are stressed or tired at work, we’re more likely to eat one of the muffins that James brought in to mark his birthday. These problems affect all of us of course, but with the diabetic the issue of blood sugar control gives an additional source of distraction and stress.
Thinking hard makes us eat cake
Both Kahneman and Gladwell quote fascinating experiments which show that various forms of mental effort, including performing challenging cognitive tasks and exercising self control, deplete a shared source of mental energy. For instance subjects were asked to retain a list of seven digits for two minutes and were told that that was their primary task. They also had sinful chocolate cake and virtuous fruit left out as snacks. The subjects who were memorising the numbers were much more likely to eat the cake!
It has been shown that if people are avoiding thinking about something, inhibiting the emotional response to a moving film, making choices which involve conflict, trying to impress others or responding kindly to a partner’s bad behaviour, they are more likely to lack self control in other matters. Resisting cake is one of the things that becomes harder.
Resisting cake makes us worse at our jobs
More astonishingly, the reverse of the effect is also true. In another experiment, subjects were asked to avoid eating tempting foods, such as cake, in favour of virtuous foods, such as radish. They were then given a difficult cognitive task to complete. These people gave up on the difficult task sooner than a control group who had not been given the cake/radish dilemma. (The phenomenon has been named ego depletion.)
Gladwell’s book makes the point that to avoid the energy sapping effects of resisting temptation we have to practice resisting until it becomes easier and easier and ultimately does not deplete our energy reserves. I don’t know how to do this myself, but I now appreciate that there can be substantial benefits from avoiding the conscious mental fight between my stomach’s desire for sugar and my will to avoid it!
Thinking hard depletes blood sugar
A psychologist called Baumeister discovered that expending mental energy actually depletes blood sugar. This is consistent with one of the first pieces of advice that a colleague gave me: “when I’m thinking hard, Alex, I find my blood sugar level drops more quickly.” Baumeister also finds that after thinking hard about something, mental performance on the next task is improved if a sugary snack is consumed to top-up the blood sugar levels. This is something all type 1’s know of course – one of the symptoms of a hypo is poor decision making and appearing drunk!
What does this all mean to me?
I’ve found the insights in these books thought provoking and at times surprising. They contain lessons which can raise our awareness of how we operate. Kahneman talks about the concept of flow – when we are in the zone and doing a difficult cognitive task we’re seems easy and absorbing. When we’re in this zone we do not need our powers of self control to help us. Thinking about blood sugar, or about whether anyone has emailed me in the last ten minutes are things that can block me from concentrating, and I need to figure out how to minimise the frequency and impact of my distractions.