Hopefully, since my last blog post, you’ve been employing tactics to improve both your own choice architecture and better navigate the myriad of obstacles trying to prevent you from attaining your goals.
Being strategic is only one part of the equation; kind of like equipping your car with all of the bells and whistles, only to become neutralized by forgetting to go to the gas station to fill up, whoops.
Yeah, you could avoid all of the potholes in the world by staying stranded on the side of the road, but you’re not moving forward. What’s the point of living if you’re staying still, not experiencing life in real time? The human body in all its’ beauty is basically a suped-up Brinks truck escorting the brain from point A to point B with the anatomical equivalent of armored walls, bulletproof glass, and guards carrying rifles. From an evolutionary perspective, if there is no reason to move the brain from here to there, or more simply, to experience life, there is no reason for a body.
But I digress.
Each year of existence, the human form encounters obstacles to optimal brain function. The obstacles can be completely novel, like copious amounts of LED screens suppressing melatonin late into the night and harming sleep hygiene. Or they can simply be reincarnations of millennia-old obstacles. For instance, your fight or flight mechanism engaging acutely to avoid becoming dinner for a pack of wolves, or engaging chronically during your hour-long commute through rush hour traffic, only to get your extremely stressful job. The former being good for, you know, survival and the latter being bad because the human body is not designed to endure the fight or flight state for longer than is absolutely necessary.
Luckily, we have evolved to figure out strategies to minimize the damage inflicted by these obstacles. Probably the most important strategies being sleep, hydration, food, or physical exercise, we need the perfect harmony of these big four in order for the decision-making centers in the brain to work properly.
I referenced ad nauseam in the last blog post, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and it’s amazing ability to help us do the right thing even if it’s the harder thing. Case in point why teenagers are TERRIBLE decision makers, that PFC hasn’t fully developed yet! Let’s be honest, smashing a candy bar instead of a handful of almonds for a snack in the afternoon would be tasty, but let that one-time sugar splurge turn into a pattern and years later you and Wilford Brimley are best friends. A fully fueled prefrontal cortex will help you bypass that moment of weakness and choose the healthy snack instead of the candy bar. Not only will you feel that moment of “hell yes, I made the better choice for my future self, hooray”, but the neuronal firing pattern in the brain responsible for making that decision will be stronger the next time this internal debate arises. Think of this as strength training for the decision-making center of the brain.
To quote Neuroscientist and author Norman Doidge, “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of research on Neuroplasticity and this man’s book has truly been a revelation for me. The ability to rewire the firing pattern of neuronal pathways is one thing, but providing the brain with the resources to do it properly, and when you need it the most, is a completely different ball game. Preparation is key.
Priming the PFC
“While sleep is essential for all mammals, sleep is also a vulnerable state since the decreased alertness during sleep increase the chance of being targeted by predators. This compromise in alertness versus rest suggests that sleep serves a fundamental biological function.”¹
Priority number one, sleep. In the long list of lifestyle modifications a professional might recommend, there is nothing in existence that carries more weight than catching some much-needed z’s. A human can survive with minimal food, water, without exercise, without human communication, even without a cell phone (hard to believe, I know), but the one necessity that the human species has never evolved to need less of, is sleep. Taking a wild guess here, but that must mean that all other human functions, especially cognitive ones, depend greatly on one’s sleep hygiene.
The cognitive function in question is self-control, something that separates us from other species. The self-control “headquarters” (pun intended) again is the PFC, and in order to ensure a highly functioning PFC, sleep is priority number one. There are many reasons why someone can’t or won’t stick to the desired behavior modification, but rarely do we address the root of those reasons. You want to get to a healthy, doctor recommended weight, but you can’t resist that frappucino at Starbucks in the lobby of your building. Yeah, you could blame it on the self-control or lack thereof, but why is that an issue in the first place? It’s easy to just shrug off your slip up and say you’ll do better next time, but if you’re really in it for the long-term behavior change, we need to be honest with ourselves about what could have been done better. Since willpower is a finite resource, there must be a way to get a better conversion rate on said willpower. Yep, it’s still sleep. Given a full night’s rest, and I’m talking eight hours of sleep, not eight hours of sleep opportunity (head hitting the pillow until the alarm sounds), you now have better software for the highly complex decision making computer in that dome responsible for choosing a black coffee over a grande white chocolate frappuccino (520 calories, 64g of sugar) on your way into work.
Progress Not Perfection
I do want to take a second and let everyone know that right before I wrote this, I crushed the rest of a bag of tortilla chips. Feels good to get it off my chest, but I didn’t feel good immediately after I finished. Sometimes I feel like how I imagine our doggo, Murphy, feels all the time. If I had an unlimited supply of a certain snack, I honestly don’t know if I’d stop before I got sick! The point of me airing my dirty laundry is to let everyone know that perfection is not the goal, nor should it be. Once you own the mistakes you’ve made or might have a pattern of making, you can identify your own weaknesses. Not sure if this is coincidental but I do have a higher likelihood of consuming chips, granola, and milkshakes (occasionally), in the evening after a long day of depleting my prefrontal cortex. Nothing brings my decision-making center back into alignment better than a good night of sleep.
Imagine if you worked out to the point of substantial muscle soreness one day but instead of waiting for the damaged tissue to heal, you jumped right back in. The following day you strength trained the same muscle group again. I can all but guarantee that you won’t hit the same number of repetitions with the same amount of external load. You’ll probably feel like crap during the workout and if something is sore, it definitely needs time to heal. Now, apply this same mentality to a day of heavy cognitive load (which, for an average person, is every day). What happens is all of those synaptic reactions between neurons create harmful by-products that must be expunged from the brain.
“The sleep-wake difference in glymphatic influx correlated with the volume fraction of interstitial space that was 13-15% in the awake state an expanded to 22-24% in both sleep and anesthetized mice . This observation indicates that the sleep state is particularly conducive to convective fluid fluxes and thereby to clearance of metabolites. Thus, a major function of sleep appears to be that the glymphatic system is turned on and that the brain clears itself of neurotoxic waste products produced during wakefulness.”¹
It’s the accumulation of those harmful metabolites that hinder your decision-making center. It is for that reason, that sleep is the top priority for those wanting to stick to a particular behavior change. Give yourself a fighting chance to make the right decision. There are many things you can do during your waking hours to accomplish your goals, but everything should start with the one aspect of our species that we have never evolved to need less of.
Take care of that brain of yours, and the decision-making center within will return the favor, in the form of more willpower to accomplish whichever behavior change you’re striving for.
Yours in Wellness,
Prevention over Treatment
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4636982/ (“The Glymphatic System- A Beginner’s Guide) Neurochemistry Research – May 2015