rewiring our brains

Back in 2009 I had this whole weight-loss, getting healthy, curing disease thing licked.  All except for one little thing.  What happens between my ears and in my heart, both literally and metaphorically.

I have written about this stuff before, and I’ll make a little “mind and emotions” index at the bottom of this post, but a recent BBC Program, “The Truth About Personality” re-ignited my interest, that and some posts in other people’s blogs, and some thoughts of my own … but let’s start with the BBC.  The programme is presented by Michael Mosely, of whom the BBC says:

Michael Mosley is a science presenter, writer and executive producer.  After training as a doctor at the Royal Free Hospital in London, Michael switched course and joined the BBC. He has produced a wide range of science-based programmes … and he was named Medical Journalist of the Year by the British Medical Association.

and of the programme, the BBC says:

Michael Mosley explores the latest science about how our personalities are created – and whether they can be changed.  Despite appearances, Mosley is a pessimist who constantly frets about the future. He wants to worry less and become more of an optimist.

He tries out two techniques to change this aspect of his personality – with surprising results.  And he travels to the frontiers of genetics and neuroscience to find out about the forces that shape all our personalities.

I found the programme fascinating, and I believe there’s a lot here that can help those of us for whom getting lean and healthy is more than “just” a problem of metabolic disorder.  It’s easiest if you take some time, get comfortable, grab a coffee or a gin and tonic, and watch the programme (it takes an hour).



You can see the actual “smiley faces” exercise used in the programme, online (the Cognitive Bias Modification), right here (just click the link).


There are a number of apps for the iPhone and Windows–I haven’t yet checked out for other platforms.

  • PsychMeUp, is from Mindhabits (the link goes to the app store).  Mindhabits also have a number of games on the web, some demo, some for purchase.

PsychMeUpMindHabits also has a Windows-Based app, with a free demo version, and a downloadable Windows Version.  Here’s the demo version.  The free, downloadable version only lasts for an hour, but that’s long enough to get a sense of it.  You can play PsychMeUp on your iPad or iPhone, forever, for free, so that should help you decide if it works.  The full MindHabits Windows app costs $19.95.  I haven’t tried any of them long enough to report personal experience over the long term.

AnxietyMint have a paid-for app (£1.69 in the UK).  Click for AnxietyMint on the App Store.

Jason Pegg, the author of the app uses the same basic structure for two other apps: (they are all £1.69).

These apps are fully editable: I am already working on editing Diet Mint to be more of an aid for the Ketogenic Diet.

I have all of these (except SmokingMint) and will review them as soon as I have got used to them.


Still To Come

  • Pzizz to aid mindfulness,
  • Other Mindfulness aids
  • Further thoughts if your mother didn’t lick you enough (if that’s a mystery, you haven’t watched the video!)
  • Index to blogs already touching this subject.
  • etc

“In my diet plan it says I can eat as much as I want.  How does that work?”

“I’m confused: should I count calories or not?”

“My doctor says that Gary Taubes is wrong: you can’t contradict physics.  I’m fat because I eat too much and don’t exercise enough”

We hear this all the time, and questions like this appear in Facebook groups and diet forums all the time.  Frequently with people saying something like “excuse me for being stupid“.

We will put that last one to bed straight away.  You are not stupid!

Let’s deal with “eat as much as you want“.  First, how much do you want?

Your body has sophisticated control mechanisms to tell you:

  1. You’re hungry: you need fuel (food)
  2. You are full: you’ve had enough

Click this picture: you may get a surprise!

However, unfortunately you have two completely different mechanisms in this control system:

  1. Biochemistry
  2. Psychology and emotions

Frequently our psychology and emotions around food get messed up.  It starts with parental messages to eat up all your dinner or children will starve in Africa and is then manipulated by the HUGE sums of money that advertisers spend to program our brains to make us eat.

Our biochemistry also gets messed up.  When I was a lad growing up in England, Chinese restaurants were  novelty.  There was a piece of “received wisdom” that said that you would feel hungry again half an hour after eating Chinese food. Cecil Adams in “The Straight Dope” even wrote an article about it. (Click those links: they are more fun than this blog post is likely to be!)

The point is that some food makes you feel full up, some food leaves you hungry and there is some food that actually makes you hungry (mostly manufactured food, manufactured by firms with no interest in you being healthy, just in you buying more of their products.

So, leaving on one side the psychology and emotions for a moment, if you STOP eating the stuff that doesn’t make you feel food, and replace it by eating the stuff that does make you feel full, then we can say “eat as much as you like”, reckoning that you will get to feel full quite quickly, that that will be “as much as you like” and you’ll eat less, and lose weight.

But notice what I said there: “you will eat less”.  Let’s move on.

(Oh, by the way, highly processed carbs and sugars are the things liable to make you want to eat more, and fatty and spicy food are likely to make you want to eat less.  ”Diet” versions don’t help.  To understand just a little of what’s going on here, first glance at “Is it true that drinking diet sodas like Diet Coke make you crave carbohydrates?”  You will notice that there is one “yes” vote and one “no” vote, the “no” coming from Snopes, which I usually trust.  But then just glance through this Mercola article: “Aspartame — History of Fraud and Deception“.  It’s down the bottom where he says:

Aspartame is the only biochemical warfare product on grocery shelves

that makes me think I need a lot more research before I’ll give it a try!).

Of course, we haven’t dealt with the psychology yet.

You have probably heard this old joke: “I’m on a seafood diet. I see food and I eat it!

There is even a Facebook page with that name, for food jokes :

Q: Why do bakers work so hard?
A: Because they need the dough.

But maybe the “see food” thing isn’t a joke.  Maybe it’s the truth.  Spend a couple of minutes watching this experiment carried out by stage hypnotist Paul McKenna:


You might like to try it for yourself.

And how would it be if someone fed you, rather than you feeding yourself?  My guess is that each mouthful will be smaller and that your “eating speed” will be slower.

I think that we have learned to bypass or over-ride our “satiety” signals, and if we could fix that problem, then we would feel full sooner, and we would eat less.

But notice what I said there: “we would eat less”.

Losing weight is all about eating less.  It’s about doing something that will mean that we are happy to stop eating when we are full.  It is not about forcing ourselves to eat less.  That never, ever works.  And if you think it does, just look around you.  All over the western world for at least the last half century, doctors, nutritionists and diet pundits have been telling overweight people to, “eat less, exercise more”.

Does it look like this advice is working?  I don’t think so.

And then along comes Gary Taubes with his two books, [simpleazon-link asin="1400033462" locale="us"]Good Calories, Bad Calories[/simpleazon-link] ([simpleazon-link asin="0091924286" locale="uk"]The Diet Delusion[/simpleazon-link] in the UK) and [simpleazon-link asin="0307474259" locale="us"]Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It[/simpleazon-link].  The book (WWGF) changed my life.  Here’s why.

There is a subtle subtext behind “If you eat less and exercise more you will lose weight” which says “you are fat because you are greedy and lazy“.  Gee, thanks doc.

When Gary says that this isn’t the way to go with this all the conventional pundits cry “foul”.  They say it’s all a question of physics.  If you take in more energy than you put out, that excess energy has to go somewhere and it will be stored as fat.  Therefore, take in less energy and/or put out more energy, or both.  It’s all physics and Gary Taubes should be burned at the stake (steak?) for saying otherwise.

But Gary does NOT go against the laws of physics.  Read the above paragraph again, but stop at the word “Therefore”.  There should be a whole book, or maybe a whole library, between “stored as fat.” and “Therefore …”

Here’s an example that Gary uses quite a lot.  Think of  a teenage boy.  There comes a certain age where they seem to grow (tall) overnight.  And they seem to be always in the fridge, except when they are in bed.  But you don’t ever hear a parent say “My Tommy has grown six inches in the last three months, it must be because he’s eating too much and not exercising enough”.  He is eating because he is growing.  He lacks energy because all his energy is going into growing.  And why is he growing?  Well, we know, don’t we.  It’s his hormones.

And it’s our hormones that make us grow fatter, too.  It’s just different hormones.  With Tommy it’s testosterone and somatropin, with me it’s insulin.  With Tommy it’s supposed to happen: if his testosterone and somatropin get out of whack he’ll either not grow, or he’ll be a giant.  My insulin is out of whack: I’m only a giant width-wise.  And it was eating too many refined carbohydrates when I was young and foolish (and middle-aged and foolish) as opposed to now when I am old and foolish, that damaged my insulin system.

But I’m getting off subject, or at least on to a subject that I’ll come back to later.

So, Do I have to Count Calories? Yes or No?

Well, it depends (sorry!)  You will only lose weight if you correct that energy balance: eat less or exercise more (actually, exercising more probably won’t help: it’ll just make you hungry).

What we hope is that by eating less processed junk food, less refined carbs, by eating more “real food” (what your grandparents called “food”), by eating a balanced amount of protein and upping the amount of fats that you eat (etc etc: we’ll deal with precisely what elsewhere), you will naturally want to eat less.

The trick to losing weight while eating as much as you like is to change how much you like.

So if you are following your low-carb diet, or your paleo or primal regime or your ketogenic or auto-immune protocol, and you are not losing weight, then you are eating too much … BUT, the answer is not to just cut down, but to find out why.  If you are significantly obese then it is highly likely that switching to a paleo or ketogenic regime will cause you to lose weight, without having to count calories.  You will just naturally want to eat fewer calories.  You’ll feel full up sooner.

But as you get closer to your goal weight, where the margins for calculation are tighter, you may need to exercise more control.  You may need to count something … not necessarily calories: it may be grams of carbs, or it may be getting the macro-nutrient ratios right.  It may be paying better attention to micro-nutrients.  I have heard it said that if we are missing certain micro nutrients in our diet that we may crave certain foods.  I have also heard it said that modern food is only around half as nutrient dense as food that was commonly available 100 years ago.  So, presumably, we need to eat twice as much (and hence get twice as many calories) just to get the same level of micro nutrients.

Or it may be finding a way to re-wire your brain, so that you find more effective ways of supporting starving African children, other than by eating more than you need yourself.

As so many of my articles conclude, it is highly likely that no-one has an off-the-peg answer to your individual question.  Research is needed.  The question is, will you pay a Harley Street nutritionist £125 per hour to do the research, or will you learn about food, nutrition and your own body, and do your own research?

Go on, give me a hint!

Zoe Salmon

Zoe Salmon

Some while ago the BBC made a programme called “The Big Fat Truth About Low Fat Foods“.   I like this programme because they took an ordinary person (well, as ordinary a you can be, being an ex Blue-Peter presenter and an FHM model) and put her on a low-fat, packaged food diet for four weeks, to see what would happen.  She is “ordinary” in the sense that she doesn’t have any particular health problems, is not a diet and nutrition expert, but generally eats a reasonable diet.

(Having said that, I just discovered that she was a contestant in Celebrity Masterchef!!)

For four weeks, model and former Blue Peter presenter Zoe Salmon ditches the fine dining she’s used to and lives on nothing but pre-packaged, highly-processed foods that are labelled either low or lower in fat. She finds out what’s in these foods and how they affect her moods, nutritional levels and, crucially, her weight. She also meets the low calorie converts who say that eating this way isn’t just a diet, but a way of life.

The programme (I think) does for Weight Watchers what “Supersize Me” did for Macdonalds.  I think the programme is a must to show to anyone who thinks your high-fat diet will kill you, and a must for anyone considering Weight Watchers.  Here’s a trailer:


And here’s the who programme (it’s about 50 minutes):


I have long been a fan of Brené Brown, ever since I saw her 2010 TED talk (I’ve embedded the video below).

You may not immediately get the links between obesity and what Brené talks about, but there are a number of them.  For instance, her key research interest is in shame, and who of us obese people isn’t ashamed of it at some level?  We know we shouldn’t be ashamed; we’re not the lazy, greedy slobs that everyone thinks we are, but we’re ashamed anyway.

But Brené’s chief subject is that of connection:

Connection is our ability to forge meaningful, authentic relationships with other people.

I believe that connection is the essence of the human experience.

It is what breathes life into, and gives meaning to our lives.

… and I think that “meaningful, authentic relationships” can be a true source of comfort, the comfort that we mistakenly seek in food.  She says that it is shame that impedes our ability to make connections, because it raises the fear that people will not want to be with us, because we’re too fat, too thin, too old, too ugly, not strong enough, not successful enough, not manly, or womanly, enough.

Food, of course, doesn’t judge us.

It just kills us!

Here’s an 8-minute clip of Brené, talking about shame and empathy, two ends of a spectrum:


Here’s her 2010 TED talk, the one that has over 600,000 views on You Tube, and probably many more on the TED website.  It’s where she begins to outline her concept of “Whole-heartedness”, which I think will become a core concept of Together We Can, just as soon as I manage to relate it to the Secure Attachment Status described by Bowlby and others.


… and here is Brené at TED once more, in March 2012, talking about shame.  This is very powerful for me, and many others, I think.

Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior. Brené Brown, whose earlier talk on vulnerability became a viral hit, explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on. Her own humor, humanity and vulnerability shine through every word.


[simpleazon-image align="right" asin="B002OIKZAG" locale="us" height="160" src="" width="133"]If you want to know more about her, check out her website:  That’s where I discovered her “Connections Curriculum“, which I am looking forward to bring back from Florida in a couple of weeks.

One post script.  By making these talks, and publishing this stuff, Brené walks her talk, makes herself vulnerable, and, sometimes, gets kicked in the teeth.  I’m sorry for that, and I admire her courage, and I hope that I can learn something from her, and stand up for what I believe in as passionately as she does.

[simpleazon-image align="left" asin="159285849X" locale="us" height="160" src="" width="107"]Here she is discussing the price of being vulnerable in public.  What can you do?  Can we overcome stuff like this?  Probably not. Can we find ways to live with ourselves and our passions, in a world that has such people in it?  I believe that Together We Can.  It’s about who you make connections with, the integrity of those connections, and how you cut connections that don’t serve.

[simpleazon-image align="left" asin="B008BMMXF4" locale="us" height="75" src="" width="65"]I have been watching the Hungry For Change video … I’ve got quite a lot to say about it, but that will have to wait. When I was buying it, I was offered the May I Be Frank video (trailer below) … and I’ll have something to say about that, too.

In the meantime, watch the trailer:


What’s burning my brain right now was a phrase I heard for the first time in my life … I heard it on the trailer for the “Frank” movie: “Let us love you until you can love yourself”. I thought that it was wonderful, and ought to become the motto for Together We Can. I Googled it, and discovered that it seems to be used all over the place; mostly in 12-step groups.

And I found a few blog entries about it. The first, called “Cotton Candy Sobriety” by Vince Jones, says it’s just a cliché, along with a bunch of other clichés he’s heard in AA meetings. He says it’s just sugar and hot air. For a while Mr Jones had me running for cover, not wanting to be accused of empty rhetoric or new-age fluff. And maybe it is a cliché when used in an AA group, after all, their essence is anonymity, and the importance of anyone being able to drop in or out at any time … so one could question how deep a love could form.

But then, on I came across Why Love Is Therapeutic. Having told us that research shows that romantic love really boosts Dopamine, one of the reward Neuro-transmitters, the author goes on to say

Neuroscientists have also studied parental love. They report that both maternal and romantic love activate regions specific to each, but also stimulate overlapping regions triggered by both. Significantly, this overlap takes place in the brain’s Limbic “reward” system, the system hijacked by addictive drugs

And then …

And love is what one gets in chemical-dependency treatment facilities and 12-Step meeting rooms. In rehab, the staff was constantly telling me things like, “Let us love you until you can love yourself,”

That’s exactly what they did. Their love, their caring, compassion, understanding, and support was a central factor …

Research demonstrates that social support also increases dopamine. Thus, addicts in recovery get powerful emotional benefits from participation in 12-Step programs apart from the message of sobriety alone.

[simpleazon-image align="right" asin="0553386395" locale="us" height="75" src="" width="49"]And through the New Science of Kindness (as described in “Mindsight”) and studies of how mirror neurons help us create empathy, and how, when we are young, they can provide one of the mechanisms through which we wind up with our adult attachment status, we discover that this is no cotton-candy new age fluff, but, done correctly and with integrity, it is hard-nosed, up to the minute, science.

So I think I just will hijack this motto of addiction-recovery programmes for Live Free From Obesity and Together We Can. And I will make sure that every TWC group knows how to operate at a level of integrity that that can produce that “friendly” and “familial” love called storge, and even agape (pronounced agga-pay) … or am I going too far?

My problem right now is I don’t have a re-hab centre, or a 12-step programme in which I feel this level of support. More to the point, I don’t have a Together We Can group to help me. Yet tomorrow morning I will be beginning the radical nutrition phase of the Live Free From Obesity programme (that’s New Speak for “diet” … But much more satisfactory).

My answer is to take what is for me (and most people, I suspect) a very radical step. I have e-mailed, connected on FB, and by this blog post, connected with lots of people who know me and, in effect, asked them “To Love Me Until I Can Love Myself”.

Eeek! Scary!

Here’s the trailer for the “May I Be Frank” video:


[simpleazon-image align="none" asin="B00AIZ21W2" locale="us" height="160" src="" width="115"]

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward.
When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”

Brenda Ueland

Brenda Ueland

Brenda Ueland

I discovered Brenda Ueland a couple of years ago.  She died long before I discovered her writing–I would have loved to have met her.  She was a journalist, a writer, and a teacher of writing.  If she were alive today, and still teaching, I’d go to wherever she was to attend one of her classes, for she taught not the picky things of sentence construction and perfect grammar, but how to reach into our souls and bring out the wonderful things that we all have inside, for she believed that we do, indeed, all have wonderful things to give to the world, and her belief is a gift to us all.

[simpleazon-image align="left" asin="9650060286" locale="us" height="160" src="" width="107"]In her best-known book, “If You Want to Write: a Book about Art, Independence and Spirit“, she says:

“Everyone is talented, original and has something important to say.”

“Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express.”

“I found that many gifted people are so afraid of writing a poor story that they cannot summon the nerve to write a single sentence for months. The thing to say to such people is: “See how bad a story you can write. See how dull you can be. Go ahead. That would be fun and interesting. I will give you ten dollars if you can write something thoroughly dull from beginning to end!” And of course, no one can. ” 

She removed the duty and chore out of writing, encouraging us to make it easy:

“….you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like child stringing beads in
kindergarten, – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”

Well, that’s all very well, but what’s it got to do with losing weight, or re-wiring our brains?  I just wanted to give you a feel for this woman, before introducing you to what she has to say about the Art of Listening.

“A friend is someone who helps you up when you’re down, and if they can’t, they lay down beside you and listen.”

(That’s not Ueland!)

I think that the most important factor in Together We Can, the most important thing that will help to heal us, to make us whole and to reach for comfort in some other place than the cookie jar, is a “friend who will lay down beside us, and listen”.

But who will listen to us?

Here’s the beginning of an article on the Art of Listening, by Ueland:

I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all – which is so important, too – to those we do not love. But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good, like ultraviolet rays.

This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weakens up and dies. Well, that is the principle of it. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to. And if you are a listener, it is the secret of having a good time in society (because everybody around you becomes lively and interesting), of comforting people, of doing them good.

Imagine a good mother, and you’ve had a bad day at school; maybe you said something in class that the teacher criticised, and then the other kids laughed at you, and on the way home you fell over and scabbed your knee, and you’re holding in the sobs, and when you get home you rush up to your room, throw yourself on the bed, and bury your head in the pillow.  And your mum comes in, lays down beside you, cuddles you, and after a moment says, “come on then, tell me all about it”, and is then silent while she waits for the words to well up, and silent while they flood out.

But what if you never had anyone like that?  Well, Ueland has a suggestion:

“…  those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny; whose attitude is:
“Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out.”

And if you have no such friend … well, then you must imagine one. ”

In Together We Can, we spend a lot of time learning to be such a friend, but if that resource isn’t available to you, then spend some time reading Brenda Ueland, and imagine her as your listener, because, as she says:

… when someone has listened to you, you go home rested and lighthearted.

And when we have been truly listened to, thoroughly listened to, and we go home rested and light-hearted, then we never even think of the cookie jar.  And when this happens on a regular basis, our brains get re-wired, and should we notice a cookie jar, it hardly even registers.

You can find the whole article: The Art of Listening, by Brenda Ueland, here.

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