Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Why Cognition Only Goes So Far

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 9, 2013


“Habitual behavior implicates parts of the brain that have relatively sparse connections to other brain areas involved in conscious decision-making (willpower) and goal setting. In effect, our bad habits represent neural islands, pretty much cut off from our thoughtful planning. We really can be of two minds — knowing and wanting to do the right thing but also unconsciously driven by habits triggered by the everyday contexts in which we live. In other words, willpower has limited command over our habitual mind. On top of that, exerting it is arduous, unpleasant and hence typically short-lived.”

Behavior is multi-determined. We can know what to do and then not do it. This applies to eating, relationship choice, and career decisions. Today’s LA Times Op-Ed article about changing eating patterns by Wendy Wood and David Neal outlines this issue. Understanding the depth of the human brain allows us to appreciate the complexity of behavior change. Merely understanding that eating too much sugar is “bad for your health” does not address the other brain structures which trump this understanding. These other brain areas can be habit areas, where our brains work on auto-pilot, or they can be in deep emotional areas where we want immediate satisfaction at the expense of long-term problems. Our brain is in constant conflict with itself, thereby giving us conflict in decision-making. We must balance out routines that are familiar, with the anxiety of a new activity. For some, this anxiety is coded as excitement and so fresh experiences are constantly wanted. For others, the comfort of sameness is more important than a new adventure. For most of us, we seek a balance, but finding this balance is the art of living. How do we enjoy food, without eating to excess? How do we not use food, as an outlet for sensual gratification? Understanding the basics of nutrition does not address the deeper meanings we attribute to the act of eating. These “neural islands” as stated above, describe how a person can be at war with himself. Psychotherapy attempts to bring these islands together to form a continent of understanding and awareness. Behavior can change, but not quickly, and not without harnessing all of the factors that go into that behavior. Cognition is only one piece.

5 Responses to “Why Cognition Only Goes So Far”

  1. Ashana M said

    Wanting immediate satisfaction over long-term planning is pretty much part of being a primate. That’s the bad news. Sometimes we need to accept that that’s as good as it gets, and just stop walking down the snack food aisle.

    • I am not so sure. Immediate satisfaction trumps long-term goals, sometimes, but not always. The issue is why does impulse control work in some situations, but not others. Thanks.

      • Ashana M said

        It depends on the degree of satisfaction involved (both in the present and in the future). Being located in the future makes satisfaction seem smaller. Being located in the present makes satisfaction seem larger. We really just aren’t very smart, and do much better tricking ourselves into making good long-term decisions than trying to exercise will-power. Will-power fails quite consistently. People who are most successful in exercising will power usually do this–they don’t have better impulse control. They are just better at considering how to avoid temptation. Dan Ariely presents this quite eloquently, but he isn’t the only one saying this. There is actually an enormous amount of research that supports this idea.

  2. Shelly said

    It is very, very true that cognition only goes so far, especially if one puts in all the effort and the fruits of one’s labor is not recognized or is not “good enough.” In these cases, one can’t plan far enough ahead for the disappointment and how to appease the disappointment one will feel in advance, and the nothing but a piece of chocolate or a glass of chardonnay will do. Of course, I am speaking about the expectations of bosses whereby one has been working on something for a great deal of time and then when one receives feedback, it does not meet the boss’ hopes. In that case, the criticism is not expected and the only thing that feels right, at the time, is a short-lived “feel good” pick-me-up like a walk down the snack food aisle.

    • Yes. Food and alcohol are often used as comfort for disappointment. Knowing this pattern does not stop it, but understanding the need for comfort, might help the person begin to think about other ways to gratify that need. Thanks.

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