Photo: Simon A. Eugster
What You Feel is Real, What You Want Isn’t
The brain chemistry of anticipation
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
When somebody tells you, “It’s all in your head,” they mean whatever is bugging you isn’t real – it isn’t worth taking seriously. The way we say this reflects our ambivalence about thinking, you know, “use your head!” but “don’t get stuck in your head!”
In Yoga for Pain Management I discussed why it’s incorrect to think of placebos as medicine you’re given when there’s “really nothing wrong” with you. In fact, placebos are powerful for many real physical conditions.
We have conflicted ideas about where something is when it’s real.
The real deal
Addiction is often misunderstood as being either “in your head” or “real.”
The experience of being addicted to something may be considered by people who don’t feel the same draw as a kind of “convenient” excuse for just not wanting to deal with or give up a behavior or substance. You “just think” you can’t do without it.
This “in your head” addiction is looked down on as a matter of being weak, of not exercising control over appetite for something, whether that’s food, horse races, or sex. However, physiologically, even if going without chocolate doesn’t produce pain, “in your head” addiction turns out to be the real deal, not a fake out.
Craving is not about food
Evolving research reveals intriguing aspects of our brain structure and chemistry that challenge popular beliefs about addiction.
Tufts University released a study on neurological aspects of anticipation and satisfaction that seem to be related to obesity. It turns out areas of the brain that register anticipation may be out of balance with our ability to experience satisfaction.
In other words, we feel expectation way out of proportion to how much we’ll actually be able to feel satisfied.
The relationship between anticipation and satisfying anticipation is not imaginary or some aspect of attitude – it’s physical and neurological.
Craving is not about metabolism
Emmanuel Pothos, PhD, is the study’s corresponding and senior author. He’s assistant professor in the department of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at TUSM and member of the neuroscience program faculty of the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.
Pothos says of the study:
Obesity has so far been approached mostly as a metabolic rather than as an addictive disorder; and obesity research has primarily focused on brain systems that regulate body weight through the maintenance of energy balance. The current study challenges this approach by focusing on brain pathways implicated in pleasure and reward. These pathways could override energy balance and induce hyperphagia and obesity by altering the reward value of food, particularly palatable high-energy food, very early in life.
In similar research, by directly measuring brain activity, Eric Stice of the Oregon Research Institute found that obese people are neurologically primed to anticipate pleasure in food at a more intense level than those with lower weight. Stice and his colleagues found the same persons with intense anticipation actually enjoy eating the food much less than those with lower weight do.
Changing habits is physical
Stice said that initially the researchers expected to find that obesity was caused by higher satisfaction with food – greater pleasure leading to more eating, but in fact found the opposite.
This is why yoga is invaluable. Yoga works the way your body works. The practice of yoga stills the constant reinforcement of habits and entrenched perception – the “patterning of consciousness.”
Yoga’s effectiveness in helping to heal numbness and dissociation may arise because the practice of yoga rebalances the relationship between anticipation and satisfaction neurologically, directly addressing the patterning of disorder or imbalance.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.