Wellness has an enemy, and despite what you may have been told, it’s not Voldemort – it’s you. And me. It’s all of us. When it comes to wellness, we are often our own greatest adversaries. But don’t get down on yourself, because it isn’t really your fault. The fault lies in your unconscious – or rather in the way your brain has evolved to divvy up responsibilities between your conscious awareness and your unconscious. First, let’s recap some of the more staggering evidence that you are the enemy of your wellness. Then we’ll talk about how your brain gets you into this mess, and we’ll introduce some of the new research and technologies that are making it easier for you to get out.
We already know that poor choices in what you eat and how often you get some exercise has led to a staggering rise in obesity – and all of the health risks and costs that come along with being overweight. But beyond that oversaturated story, we are learning that even something as widely consumed as sugar may have dramatic negative effects on our wellness – regardless of our weight. According to this lengthy and terrifying piece in the NY Times, some research indicates that sugar (which is in pretty much all processed foods these days) may be the poison that has been behind the rapid rise of heart disease, hypertension, and even cancer. In the article, they claim that sugar and high fructose corn syrup, could account for up to 80% of all cancers. There’s way too much science for me to explain that claim here, so go read it for yourself – it’s worth it (and yes, I still eat a ton of sugar).
Now that you’re sufficiently freaked out, let’s talk about your brain. The human brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. There are more connections in your brain than there are atoms in the universe. And all of that magnificent processing power runs on approximately 20 watts of electricity. Compare that to the 85,000 watts required to run IBM’s Watson (the super computer they built that recently dominated past Jeopardy champions), and you get a sense of just how remarkable your brain is. One of the most important ways your brain conserves power is to automate as much of your behavior as possible by shifting it into your unconscious. It takes a lot of energy to make a conscious decision – to sort through all of the options and make a choice. It takes very little energy to follow a pre-programmed script.
Here’s a good example: have you ever gotten in your car with the intention of going someplace, then you zoned out and realized that you had driven yourself somewhere else? Driving is a decision-intensive activity. You have to take in a lot of sensory data and make a lot of choices. How much gas, when to break, where to turn – but almost all of us can make these decisions while thinking about something completely unrelated, because these behaviors have become automated and are handled by our unconscious.
Wellness behaviors are handled the same way. What you eat. When you exercise. How you handle stress. All of these behaviors are largely automated, and once they are programmed into your unconscious, it’s ridiculously hard to re-program them. It requires persistence, effort and repeated failure. It requires willpower.
Luckily for us we live in an era where we are not just becoming aware of how our own automated behaviors are sabotaging our personal wellness, we have new technologies (like the passive monitoring FitBit or UP) and insights to help us be more successful at reprogramming ourselves. I’m going to talk about three of the big ones at Social Media Week and run a live experiment to help you understand this, on Friday 2/17 at 11am. If you can’t make it, I’ll follow up this post with more info on what I spoke about. The three I will tackle are:
Willpower. We now know from a number of experiments, that willpower is a real thing, and that it functions under similar rules as your muscles. It is fueled by glucose, it gets stronger with training and it has a finite amount of strength – meaning every conscious decision you make will make the next choice harder.
Social influence. Lots of research has begun to unearth how the people around you influence your programmed behaviors – often without you even knowing it is happening. This has big consequences for the role of social media in health and wellness.
Feedback loops. The proliferation of devices that measure our behavior, and the use of data visualization to reflect that behavior back at us in totally new ways, has rapidly accelerated our ability to deliberately reprogram our behaviors.
I’m going to wrap all this info inside an experiment to test one of the key hypotheses: that socially-enabled feedback loops can strengthen your willpower. Remember to register to attend and look out for an announcement for the beginning of the experiment. We won’t have any idea before the talk whether it will work or not, so it should be fun to see the results live.
In the mean time, please visit our Quora board on willpower and feedback loops to learn more and contribute to the conversation.
Hope to see you there.