This is mostly a plug for the wonderful but seemingly abandoned blog Ten Hundred Words of Science, which features academics explaining everything from volcanoes to advanced mathematics using only the thousand most common words in the English language. (“Thousand” is not one of those words.) The whole thing is based on this webcomic.
I recently submitted a new entry, but I don’t think it will ever be published, so I’ve posted it here instead. These 191 words of science are brought to you by the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Lab.
I work with people who look into other people’s brains to learn about why we do things. Especially things we do over and over even though they are bad for us, like eating too much food or smoking.
We are pretty sure that some parts of the brain do a lot more work than usual when people think about doing these kinds of bad over-and-over things. We hope that, if we learn more about which parts of the brain are most important in this way, other people can make new stuff that changes these parts of the brain, and that people can use this stuff to help themselves not think the bad over-and-over thoughts as much.
We also look at ways that people can control these bad wants without putting new stuff into their bodies. One thing we study, and that works sometimes, is when people with bad over-and-over thoughts sit quietly and think about the feelings they have about pictures of things they like to eat or smoke. Another way of thinking that works for people sometimes is to think about the bad things that might happen in the months and years after today if they keep doing the bad things. This can make them not want to do the bad things as much!
I like “over-and-over things” for “habits”, but “new stuff that changes these parts of the brain” is one hell of an ugly way to say “drugs”. The One Hundred Words text editor doesn’t allow “drugs”, “medicine”, “substance”, or “pill”.
What my lab actually does: FMRI scans of people (sometimes with addictions to various things, sometimes not) who are looking at pictures of drugs and food and so on, so that we can figure out the neurological “basis of craving”—that is, which parts of the brain light up when we crave things. When we figure out which parts of the brain are most responsible, others can use this knowledge to design better drugs. (There are other benefits to this research, but I don’t know enough to explain most of them very well.)
We also spend quite a bit of time thinking about meditation, or “mindfulness-based interventions”. which tend to show that thinking about cravings in one of two ways can help people resist said cravings (compared to viewing the cravings “naturally”).
The first, “reappraise”, involves thinking deliberately of the negative (long-term) consequences rather than positive (short-term) consequences of giving in to one’s urges. The second, “mindfully attend”, simply call for subjects to carefully notice what sorts of sensations they are feeling, without judging or attempting to change the sensations.
In other words, just thinking about your own thoughts seems to enhance your willpower. This is an incredible finding. But I’m not going to explore the implications yet, because I don’t understand them all that well myself, and this is enough science for one day.