The pleasure trap – or how your brain gets tricked into thinking BAD is GOOD
By Robyn Chuter
The human brain and body are both adapted to live in a very different world than the one we inhabit today. Many of the health problems that are so prevalent in developed countries, and among the wealthy in developing countries – such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer of the breast, bowel and prostate – are simply the inevitable consequences of eating a diet rich in kilojoules but poor in micronutrients, and not getting enough exercise.
The problem is, over millennia of evolution in an environment where energy-dense food was scarce, our brains developed neural circuits that reward us with sensations of pleasure when we eat fatty, sweet or rich food.
This was a brilliant adaptation in our earlier history; it caused us to preferentially seek out energy-dense foods during the brief times that they were available and eat as much as we could, so we could lay down fat stores that we could live off during the lean times.
And during those lean times, we would still have access to low-energy but high-nutrient foods (leaves, berries, tubers), ensuring we didn’t become malnourished.
But in our present setting, there are no times of scarcity. Most of us are eating, on a daily basis, what our ancestors only ate rarely – even though those foods, when eaten any more often than on special occasions, undermine our health.
This phenomenon is the foundation of what psychologist Doug Lisle and Alan Goldhamer, director of the TrueNorth Health Center in California, have dubbed ‘The Pleasure Trap‘.
Put simply, your ‘primitive’ brain tells you that that chocolate bar, doughnut, hot chips, ice cream, hunk of cheese or whatever else your weakness is, is GOOD and you should eat more of it – even while your ‘rational’ brain is screaming at you to stop right now if you ever want to fit into your favourite jeans again!
Backed by millennia of evolutionary drive, the primitive brain wins the contest more often than not, leaving the rational brain to beat you up afterward for your weakness, and make you promise never to do it again.
So how do we break out of this pleasure trap and bring our eating habits into line with our knowledge and good intentions? Not through will-power, which flounders in the face of addictions such as these. I have found that using EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) is the simplest, fastest and kindest route back to dietary sanity.
EFT is a superb tool for beating food cravings, as a client I’ll call Jacinta discovered recently. Jacinta had a long history of addictive eating, and a generally uncomfortable relationship with food. She knew exactly what she should be eating, and had experienced the benefits of this way of eating in the past. But her healthy diet plans repeatedly came unstuck when cravings hit.
I taught her how to use EFT to deal with her craving for fresh bread and butter, and by the end of the session she felt repulsed by the thought of eating it – a very common experience, as I’ll discuss in a moment.
On her own, at home, she then tapped on her craving for hot chocolate and cola, which she’d been having daily. In each case, her desire for these foods simply disappeared, to the point where she could not recall even thinking about them, let alone wanting to consume them, over the last few weeks.
I have observed time and time again, that when people tap on their craving for unhealthy foods, their perception of the taste and smell of those foods start to shift, to the point where they experience repugnance for foods they previously would have driven across town, in the middle of the night, to get hold of.
Often they report that the food tastes or smells of chemicals, or feels oily in their mouths. My understanding of what is happening here, is that when you abolish your addictive cravings, you get back in touch with what your body’s infinite wisdom knows is actually good for you – and lo and behold, now it actually tastes good to you!
And that’s the good news about the Pleasure Trap: when you break free of the stranglehold of addictive cravings, your brain’s pleasure circuits recalibrate, and you find that you can get a very satisfying buzz out of things that really are good for you – nourishing food, physical activity, and of course that ultimate source of healthy pleasure, good sex :).
There’s no diminishment in the amount of pleasure you feel when you dump your bad habits and live a healthy lifestyle; in fact my personal and professional experience is that we feel much more pleasure, and of course there’s no guilt afterward!