5 Mindful Eating Takeaways from Livewired
I just finished the fascinating book Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain by David Eagleman, which looks at how our brains constantly adapt to the world around us and changes in our lives. And while many of the examples are about extreme changes like losing a limb or going blind, I couldn’t help thinking how much could also apply to eating patterns.
Here are my five mindful eating takeaways – and I hope this encourages you to read the book for yourself.
1: You’re not hardwired
You may be familiar with the term “hardwired” – this refers to something designed to work a certain way all the time, without adapting. Your faucet, for example, is hardwired to dispense water. You can’t tweak it so that it suddenly plays music or heats food.
But people aren’t like that. We learn and adapt and invent all the time. This is because our brains aren’t fully developed at the moment of birth – and in fact, your brain never stops changing.
Eagleman describes this as being “livewired” as a way to explain that our minds are continually adapting.
The wonderful thing about being livewired instead of hardwired is that it’s never too late to try something new. And you’re not doomed to stay with the same patterns if you’re determined to make a change.
So even though it may feel like you’ve gotten completely set into a certain way of eating and relating to food, you can still learn something new if you really want it.
2: Motivation matters
That leads me to the next point. You can indeed adapt and change – as long as you’re properly motivated.
Consider the difference between taking two classes. One is a requirement to graduate, but you find the subject boring. The other class is one you chose because you were interested in it.
In the boring class, maybe you did what you needed to pass, but you probably didn’t remember anything about it after the class finished. But for the one you liked, you may have applied yourself more, maybe even did some extra credit, because you liked the subject matter so much. And odds are, you remembered more about that class for longer because it mattered to you.
This applies to learning anything, though you have different types of motivation. Wanting to impress someone…. making more money... being more successful… improving your health… and more.
But if you try to learn something that doesn’t interest or motivate you, you’ll fail because your brain won’t bother to devote energy or resources to something that’s clearly not important to you.
So, as we start the new year, if you want to change your eating patterns, it’s a good time to think about your motivation and what matters to you.
3: Focus on what you want
On the other hand, when you are motivated, you’re much more likely to focus on your goals. And that’s a good thing because the focus helps rewire your brain.
When you pay attention to something, your brain recognizes it and will adjust accordingly. One example in the book was how London cab drivers (pre-GPS) spent a long time learning how to get around the city, and it physically changed their brains.
Or consider athletes like Venus and Serena Williams. Tennis has been part of their lives from the time they were young children, and as such, their brains have adapted. Because of all their time practicing and playing, their brains became optimized for tennis and would look different from the brains of their sisters. (As an aside, I recently watched King Richard, about how Richard Williams and his wife raised two such tennis champions, and I highly recommend it.)
From a mindful eating perspective, this means that once you know your motivation, keep that at the front of your thoughts and focus on it as you develop new behaviors. It will take a while for your brain to optimize to those new patterns, but it will.
4: Effort reduces with time
That optimization is important for one big reason: it means that things get easier over time.
This is true for anything you learn, provided you’re focused on it and motivated.
Remember what it was like learning how to drive. At first, it might have seemed overwhelming thinking about all the things to pay attention to: other drivers, speed limits, pedestrians, windshield wipers, turn signals, squirrels, and much more. At the same time, you were probably motivated to learn so you didn’t have to rely on others for transportation. And now, while you still need to pay attention while driving, it’s much easier and in some ways automatic.
This same principle applies to mindful eating. At first, it’s a big change from past habits, with lots of pieces to think about. But with practice, you don’t need to spend as much effort because you’ll be able to tell more easily when you’re hungry, when you’re full, what kind of food you want, and how much you need.
It may take a while to get there, but remember that it does happen.
5: You’re capable of more than you know
Making changes in your life isn’t always easy, and you may sometimes feel like you don’t have what it takes to learn something new.
But that’s not true.
Yes, certain things, like languages, are harder to learn as you get older, but if it’s important to you, it’s still possible. You can even adapt to going deaf or becoming blind more easily than you’d expect. For example, the book talked about experiments done on people who were blindfolded, and in just hours their brains started to adapt to this simulated blindness.
And although people used to think the brain stops changing after a certain age, we know now that’s not true. If you give yourself new experiences and new chances to learn, your brain will take advantage of it and adapt.
So don’t shortchange yourself. You can learn and grow, whether it’s with mindful eating or surfing or painting, or any number of other things.
Change is always possible
Right now, a lot of people are thinking about changes they want to make in their lives. You might be one of them. If you are, remember that while you can change, you need to have strong motivation, you should focus a lot on the area you want to change, and you’ll need to practice.
But if you do that, your brain will start to figure out what you’re doing, and your efforts will pay off. The new habits will become easier to maintain, and you’ll develop new confidence as you realize how much you’re capable of.