We should shake up our own minds

Illustration by Simon Bosch
Illustration by Simon Bosch

We’ve always been a lazy lot. Our desire to outsource the more difficult parts of life – such as housework, study and tax – is not new. We have even fruitlessly tried to get our exercise done by others, most usually machines. As far back as the late 1800s, Swedish doctor Gustav Zander invented ab-rolling machines, where wheels trundled across stomachs in an attempt to shrink them.

But an American doctor, John Harvey Kellogg – the bran flakes creator – is the man responsible for the idea that we can wobble our way to slimmer selves with a wooden vibrating chair designed in about 1900 to tone muscles and clear out the intestines.

There have been dozens of incarnations of this, the most recent being the Hawaii Chair, equipped with a motor that draws on “the ancient art of the Hula”, forcing your bottom to swivel as you sit at your desk. They don’t seem to do much but the idea we might be able to work out without effort remains delicious.

The recently unveiled, ironically named “smartfork” – a fork that lights up and shakes violently when you are eating too quickly – is another version of this delusion. After your meal, you can upload your data to compare times and the duration of your meal. Will we next need to line up at bars where tiny portions are spooned into our mouths before our jaws are pushed shut?

Today, it seems, we’d also like to outsource our willpower. Which is why so much important, fascinating research is being done globally on the simplest and most neglected of attributes: self-control. The wisdom so far can be boiled down to this: if we change our habits and change our thinking, we can develop self-control, and train it like a muscle. It’s not just innate.

It has long been considered simplistic to talk about self-control when talking of obesity, for example; it is a complex phenomenon with many causes, is strongly influenced by genetics and environment, and too often people offensively and unfairly stigmatise the overweight as simply lacking control.

But the evidence shows self-control is crucial not just to obesity but to a better life. Dr Walter Mischel conducted a landmark study into self-control at Stanford in the late 1960s: the marshmallow test. Four-year-old children were told they would be given two marshmallows instead of one if they just waited a few minutes – their grimaces, wriggles, surreptitious bites and loving fondles of the marshmallows were recorded on video. Mischel found those who were able to control their desires were far more likely to be successful in their future lives. They got higher marks at school, got into better universities, were able to maintain friendships, were less likely to have drug addictions or be overweight.

A series of studies since then have confirmed that the ability to delay gratification is one of the greatest determinants of later success, in careers, love, friendship – as well an indicator of future body mass index.

In December The Journal of Pediatrics published research from the University of Missouri-Kansas City that found brains of obese children aged 10 to 14 were more active when exposed to junk food advertising, while children of a healthy weight “showed greater brain activation in regions of the brain associated with self-control”.

Ever since the marshmallow test, educators have periodically wrestled with this question: how do you teach a child self control? Surely, if we want to make our children stronger, smarter and healthier, we must also somehow teach them to be able to say no, and stop, or desist.

The key to willpower, according to psychologists who are still tracking the preschoolers from the marshmallow test, 40-odd years on, is to be able to distract yourself from what you desire with “strategic allocation of attention”.

It’s simple, and seems obvious: think about other things, just as the kids stared at the floor, closed their eyes or began humming Sesame Street songs so they would not eat the puffy white candy that was making their mouths water.

It’s also clever: train your mind, for some time, to turn elsewhere. Avoid your weakness, create another habit, and flex your mind, repetitively, as you would an arm (A Duke University study found four in 10 of our daily actions are determined by habit.)

Other research has shown we are more likely to have self-control when we are rested, well fed, alert and focused on a goal. Mental strategies can also help.

Children told to pretend the marshmallow was another object, for example, went from a one-minute waiting period to 15. Mischel told The New Yorker he dreams of schools where preschoolers are trained in simple ways: “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.'”

At a time of soaring obesity, this is a crucial debate to have, even if it is deeply unfashionable to talk about restraint. Witness the tongue lashing pole-thin British actress Joanna Lumley got when she said: “Lots of people nowadays are too greedy. People think ‘I must have a cupcake.’ What do you mean you must? You’ll get fat, you fool.” It was, of course, easy for a lean woman who says she has subsisted on lettuce for decades to say.

But why don’t we talk more of discipline, and willpower, with regard to everything? Psychologists have recently begun to argue that we should switch from a focus on self-esteem to self-control: in May last year, Psychology Today suggested America develop a national self-control policy.

Last week, the inventor of the “smartfork”, Jacques Lepine, told a reporter: “You can be told to eat slowly, but you usually forget. This way, your mind doesn’t have to do the work.” But with today’s greater understanding of neural science and the astonishing ongoing plasticity of the brain, shouldn’t we be discussing exactly the opposite: how to make our minds do the work? And how to make them keep doing the work?

Unless of course, we are content to wobble our way into the future, perched on wobbly chairs, eating from wobbly forks. Surely there has to be a smarter way.