Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Brain States & Willpower

Now that we’ve officially flipped into another new year, activity at the gym — and in the kitchen — is about to boil over into that first-quarter frenzy of new goals, new resolutions, and the hard determination that only the buzz of the holiday season can kindle. For the starry-eyed masses recently-committed to laying down the cigarettes and twinkies and getting some exercise, the new year is a time of optimism: they have dreams of better health and better bodies.

For the old gym hermits, it’s time to fortify the defenses, shore up the walls, and hunker down until late February. Not because we resent the influx of greenhorns. I’ve waffled on this over the years but in my mellowing-out I’ve had to admit that the January rush makes me happy for what it is. Sure it can be irritating to see all the chuckleheaded tomfoolery going on when you just want to squat, but let’s keep it in perspective: at least they’re trying.

The Serious and Dedicated know that, year after year, the Resolutioner rush inevitably fizzles out by late February, March at the latest, as that post-holiday enthusiasm gives way to the hard truth about reality. It’s hard work. Changes aren’t immediate and to call gratification, such as it is, delayed is an understatement. Those of you with “the bug”, who enjoy lifting and intense cardio for what it is, have to realize that, like coffee, it’s often an acquired taste.

The average Resolutioner doesn’t get that, and without any guidance or mentoring, the odds are stacked heavily against them ever figuring it out. Take a look at all the fresh faces you see on the second week of January, and compare that to how many are still there in August.

It’s easy to snicker and shake your head in judgment. It’s even easier, if you’re like pretty much everyone I’ve ever met in the fitness or strength community, to write these people off as lazy, unmotivated, weak, and other assorted insults continuing on down the spectrum of disdain.

A depressingly large number of people abandon exercise programs, and diets, and plans to quit smoking, and most anything else you can name. Why is this? Are people really just lazy and weak-willed? Are they just stupid and in need of your brilliant workout and diet plan?

I don’t like that answer. One-word responses like “lazy” and “stupid” trivialize the complexities of human nature and, from a pragmatic stance, they aren’t Useful. Capital-U Useful is my way of putting aside all the arguments over science-correctness and the ego-feeding bluster of “being right” and focusing on solutions.

Lazy isn’t a Useful concept. It’s an easy way to judge and rank and otherwise look down your nose, but it’s certainly not helpful as a fix for the problem at hand. As for stupid, I know how tempting it is to throw that word out, but as often as not your rational problem-solving faculties — otherwise known as “intelligence” — have little to do with motivation for or adherence to lifestyle changes.

As I’ve learned more about psychology, and the biological processes that underpin our decision-making and problem-solving powers, I’ve moved away from my old determinist views. The idea that a human being can be summarized by unchanging biological factors the way a clock’s gears and springs sum into the motion of the minute and hour hands appeals to many, especially in the strength and fitness communities where squat numbers and great abs are so wrapped up with ego. And of course anyone who falls short of the physical ideal is simply weak, lazy, and unmotivated. Cold survival-of-the-fittest determinism underpins the entire community, with individual agency — your power to make decisions and act on them — being the one and only cause of success or failure.

How many times a day do you read a cheesy aphorism or repetitive slogan meant to motivate you and push you into the realm of “hardcore”? How often are you reminded that you have to be tough as a sack of nails and unfazed by even the most daunting of challenges? How often do you feel pressured to keep up that facade and put on a show for the group because any sign of weakness reflects badly on your character? You can’t spend 15 minutes around the average fitness-minded group without coming across low-budget posturing.

You’d think willpower were just a matter of sucking it up and changing yourself. Why don’t you just work harder? Why don’t you be more like that guy? What’s your excuse? A fair enough message, but not when coming from the same mouth that believes in a predetermined and unchanging human nature.

Western culture perceives the mind and traits of character and personality as ineffable things — maybe a soul, or supernatural energy, but certainly not crude like squishy organs and tissues. Odds are that, whether you realize it consciously or not, you think of your mind as something separate from your body and not subject to the same rules.

That’s not entirely accurate. Mind is no easy concept to define, but it’s certainly not biological or even physical at all — you can’t touch a thought or quantify what it is about an emotion that you experience — but at the same time, that internal life of thought and experience intimately relates to the activity of nerves in your brain.

Ignoring the thorny issues of cause and effect for the sake of the point, neurological correlates of behavior, neural networks that activate or switch off in rough correspondence with feelings or behaviors, suggest that our psychology is a biological function (perhaps not precisely, because of those thorny causality issues, but for the purposes of our discussion it’s close enough to the mark).

Psychological traits are inherited and biologically determined much like your height and hair color, emerging from your brain the way hair grows out of follicles in your skin.

Traits including willpower.

Anyone who’s ever suffered from depression or anxiety disorders knows how powerful those ailments can be. You just don’t feel right on the inside, and the feelings aren’t powerless illusions — at their worst they creep out into the world and distort everything with an ugly tint. Mood disorders correspond to altered brain chemistry in several networks related to mood, sense of fear and anxiety, and motivational drives. Causality aside, the clear connection between the neurology and the internal experience has lead neuroscientists and psychiatrists to recognize the biological origins of these diseases.

Imagine telling the victim of a house fire to suck up his third-degree burns. Pain’s all in your head, after all, just another set of nerves firing in the right places. The flaw in that reasoning glares at you: there’s an obvious malfunction in the tissue that needs medical treatment and time to heal.

Mental health issues, subject as they are to considerable stigma in our society of iron-willed work ethic, don’t get that same benefit of the doubt. Those afflicted are greeted with disbelief, often as not told to “suck it up” and “deal with it” by those who’ve never shared that particular internal state. The brain’s dysfunctions aren’t so obvious or easily ignored as third-degree burns, and yet there’s hardly any difference in the character of the two scenarios. Tissues and organs, whether caused by trauma or infection or plain old genetic inheritance, don’t behave how they’re supposed to behave and the result is a health problem.

Obvious damage to skin, or liver, or heart demands medical attention. We treat every organ system in our body as deserving of medical treatment except the brain, which, to ask your average fitness expert, is fixed by being more hardcore. That’s the extent of Western insight into problems of the inner self, and that’s an obstacle when dealing with questions of why people aren’t behaving as you’d expect them to behave.

If people aren’t exercising and sticking to diets, it might be that there’s an internal cause worth treating the way you’d treat a burn or a cut to fix the health problem. I know that certainly some of you reading this are from the I’m So Hardcore school of thought and you’re rolling your eyes at me right now. Validating all these lazy people will only encourage them to be lazy.

Maybe. I don’t deny that there’s a cultural dimension to our collective willpower failings, in that we’re wired to follow the path of least resistance and our society brings resistance to a low unprecedented in human history. But I’d rather understand why the willpower failures happen and look for solutions rather than bringing out the L-word and the S-word and transforming this into a moral failing. If there is a genuine connection between biology and willpower failure, then it’s worth investigating.

Roy Baumeister heads the social psychology lab at Florida State University, a lab with his name on it. Since graduating from Princeton in 1978, Baumeister has studied questions of self and identity. Not only what they are, but how our notions of self relate to wider society. In what’s become perhaps his most popular thread of research, Baumeister and his colleagues have demonstrated in a series of studies that self-control and willpower act like a limited resource. When we have to make executive decisions and impose our will — putting down the cookies, skipping that afternoon smoke, or doing math problems — we use up some of that supply. Use up too much and all those temptations overwhelm us; we literally don’t have the mental energy to say no.

To understand this in context, you aren’t an idealized free-thinking decision-maker reasoning out logical decisions based on facts. You’re an emotional thinker on a level you probably don’t realize as your brain’s built to hide the fact from conscious awareness, driven by intuitive emotional biases that color your rational thoughts. The notion of free will, your capacity to make decisions and follow them through, draws on the brain’s rational and emotional circuits in tandem, and repeated experiments have shown that it’s the emotional spearheading the efforts with the more evolutionarily-recent rational-self playing lackey.

Self-control isn’t so much about drawing up plans with your shining intellect, rather than suppressing the urges and emotionally-colored thoughts spit up by your reptile brain. Willpower is saying no to the stream of intuitive, knee-jerk impulses coming out of your mind, clamping down on them and hopefully giving yourself space for the slower conscious processes to make smarter, or at least better-informed, decisions. Free will is more like free won’t, as the brain-nerds say.

Baumeister’s work implicates the brain’s store of glucose as willpower’s fuel source. Once depleted through intense concentration, heavy drinking, or forcing yourself to eat yet another meal of chicken and broccoli, self-control tanks along with its fuel supply. You’re no longer able to resist the emotional urges, and any cookies within striking distance are doomed.

Baumeister compares willpower to a flexed muscle. You can only hold it so long before you run out of energy, and once you’ve worn it out, that muscle won’t be good for much else until it recharges. He calls this phenomenon of exhausted self-control ego depletion.

It doesn’t take much imagination to think of the ways ego depletion might affect, and be affected by, exercise, being one of the top contributors to physical and mental fatigue. Even without research to prove it, you know what goes on during hard exercise. We tend to sit in a zone of intense concentration and focus, using up willpower reserves to push through pain and fatigue. Working muscles compete for circulating blood glucose, limiting the brain’s access and hampering any possibilities of recharging.

Kathleen Martin Ginis of McMaster University in Toronto has examined the depletion of self in the context of exercise, and her findings bolster the view that exercise is both cause and effect. A recent study with Stephen Bray first exposed the participants to a task meant to deplete self-control before 10 minutes of cycling. The ego-depleted subjects produced less work than fresh counterparts in the control group, as you might expect. But it didn’t stop there. Not only did these subjects look ahead and plan to do less work in an upcoming workout, the degree of reduction in planned effort also predicted their adherence to a program over the following eight weeks.

Depleted ego influences the effort you put into workouts and your planning for future workouts, setting off a domino effect of self-sabotage.

Another study from Bray and Martin Ginis indicates that even thinking really hard depletes self-control to a degree that impacts maximum voluntary strength. That’s worth remembering in light of “central fatigue” problems that apparently plague us all now — you’ve only got so much mental effort to go around, so prioritize it where it matters (which won’t always be exercise if you have more important things happening in your life). Hard training and a busy life may not always cooperate (see also: 21727299, 17995906)

A 2010 study by Martin Ginis and Elisa Murru tested a “possible selves” intervention on exercise behavior and self-regulatory efficacy, a way of saying that you believe in your own performance as a means of reaching a goal. Participants were divided into two “possible self” groups, one a “hoped-for” group in which they imagined themselves in the future as healthy exercisers, the other a “feared” group imagining their future as unhealthy and inactive.

It may not sound like much, but evidently it worked. Participants in either of the possible self groups reported greater exercise adherence at both four and eight weeks after the intervention, adherence boosted in part by improved self-efficacy.

Belief in your own competence matters, and for reasons extending beyond sticking to a workout plan. A 2011 study from the University of Gent in Padova, Italy, suggested that a disbelief in free will — that is, the belief that you’re in control and able to act — leads to measurable changes in brain activity, and those changes affect social behavior and performance in a given task.

Participants were asked to read two different passages, one of which argued against the notion of individual choice and free will, while the other affirmed the power of the individual to act. The passages were expected to briefly affirm or discourage a belief in free will, and indeed scans of the subject’s brain showed that those in the disbelief group had less activity in the regions governing voluntary movement.

Baumeister has also done his share of research dealing with belief in free will and self-control. A paper from 2009 suggests that disbelief in free will leads to selfish, impulsive — and thus socially undesirable — behavior. In contrast, believing in freedom to choose and act appears to make people more thoughtful and reflective, less aggressive and more willing to be helpful.

Another article co-authored with Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota suggests that, in dealing with addictive behaviors, belief in free will is the socially-useful stance:

“Self-control is an important form of what people understand as free will, and the capacity for self-control is real but limited – thus neither complete nor completely lacking. The traditional notion of willpower may be useful here, especially if one understands willpower as a kind of psychological energy that fluctuates as people use it up and then re-charge it. Free will is a partial, sometime thing.”

The mere belief that you aren’t in control causes changes in neural activity and in the resulting behavioral outcomes. Free will may or may not exist as we’d want it to be, but believing in it sure does matter. Feeling out of control and believing that you’re helpless means that, in a real sense, you are.

Let’s relate that back to the typical exercise and diet recommendations trickling down to our Resolutioners. Even coming in with the best of intentions, how long will a person subsist on pain-chasing “feel the burn and suck it up” training and diets built on deprivation? With immediate and obvious results, maybe longer than you’d think, but how many get that instant feedback and stay with it long enough to form a habit?

When the behaviors are both demanding, depleting self-control resources, and devoid of self-validation — like results, or at least being entertaining enough to hold their interest — then of course you’re going to have a high washout rate. That’s not a willpower failing, that’s a disconnect between gym and trainer, on the one hand, and prospective exerciser.

This applies even to those of you with “smart” and well-informed training programs and diet plans. You can have all the information and productive methods you want. If you can’t parse it in a way that generates appeal and motivates consistency, then it’s useless. You can complain about women who think they’ll get bulky and guys curling in the squat rack and decry all the stupid people that just won’t listen to this awesome advice — and you’re not reaching a single one of them.

It would be unfair to make this completely one-sided, though, and I’m not putting blame on anyone (even though I think the fitness community leaves much to be desired, as we’re supposed to be the professionals). The problem, such as it is, has causes distributed all over society and it makes no sense to think “big”. Rather, let’s think of how we can fix it on an individual basis.

Baumeister and Martin Ginis both note that willpower can be trained with practice. The analogy with a flexed muscle doesn’t stop at tiredness. Like a muscle, continually flexing it makes it stronger. Regularly challenging your willpower, by resisting the cookies or making yourself sit just a little longer, improves self-control.

Of personal interest to me have been mindfulness-based programs and cognitive therapies. Mindfulness training is interchangeable with meditation. You sit and breathe and keep your thoughts on the breath. It may seem boring at first, but with practice you’ll notice improvements in concentration and focus, improvements that seem to correlate with growth of the respective brain regions. You aren’t just watching your breathing, it turns out. You’re developing the parts of the brain that handle attentional focus and self-awareness, two qualities intimately related to self-control and which, unsurprisingly, many people are lacking in the fast-paced information-soaked lives we’re expected to live.

Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, combines elements of Buddhist spirituality and meditation into a more formalized (as formalized as that sort of thing gets, anyway) stress-reduction process. MBSR has its own clinical results showing it effective as a coping strategy for a broad spectrum of problems. Kabat-Zinn has written several books cover his methods in more detail if you’re after a more in-depth treatment.

Cognitive therapy works from the opposite direction, talking back to those impulsive thoughts and using your powers of reason to put them away. Cognitive therapy isn’t a single strategy or intervention, but rather a mental tool-kit that you can draw on according to the situation at hand. Cognitive therapy has a clinically-proven track record, not only as a treatment for mood disorders but in other life-changing scenarios, so you may well find it useful as a tool for diet and exercise adherence. David Burns has written the comprehensive and easily-accessible Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy which is recommended for a detailed overview of cognitive therapy.

The mind goes where you send it and reflects what you put in it. You can let impulses run your life, or you can realize that you do have control and find the tools to turn things around. Mindfulness and cognitive therapy and willpower practice all put you in a specific frame of mind meant to counteract that mindless state, and, at least in the case of mindfulness, this actually leads to measurable changes in brain structure (see also: 21071182, 19015095, 21334442).

This leaves us almost full circle, though not quite. Willpower and self-control must be part of the solution, and at the same time, these are not magical qualities separate from biological influence. The brain generates the self-control feeling, and a poorly-wired brain with a weaker impulse-control function — whether due to inherited genes or environmental signals — may be more susceptible to addictive or impulsive behaviors. Behaviors which include sitting in a rut on the couch eating junk food.

Just as any two people can stand at different heights and have different hair color, self-control and the unconscious impulses it has to fight can be very different between them.

I’d suggest that the slogans, the aphorisms, the motivational quotes and go-get-em attitude treats the whole problem backwards. Successful athletes and fitness models who act out those one-liners didn’t get that way by beating themselves into submission. They learned to do what they do by practice, training, and conditioning. And I don’t mean in the sense of a Nike commercial. You didn’t grow up in their life, so you can’t expect to adopt their inner drives.

Overcoming adversity, if it can be learned at all as a life-skill, definitely won’t be learned through self-righteous admonition and brow-beating. To change, people have to believe that change can happen at all and that it’s a process of on-going refinement. Setting a bar impossibly high and using the tact of a Parris Island drill sergeant, Biggest Loser style, probably doesn’t get it done.

You’d get mad over curls in the squat rack or women spending three hours a day on the treadmill to lose fat. Don’t treat the mind with Bro-science.

What you can do, however, is firstly realize that you have a measure of control, and secondly that you can fix it by practicing and cultivating that control through psychological techniques. You can learn to coach your mind, and believing that you can is the first step on the way. That’s Useful.

My pragmatic and cynical side knows that you can’t reach everyone this way. Some people, well, you’re just not going to reach them at all, and maybe the L-word and the S-word does apply sometimes. I just don’t think we should give up so easily when, at least in our own lives, we feel we aren’t living up to the Tough As Nails ideal that encompasses sports and athletic training. You can succeed without going there, and I really wonder how many enthusiastic beginners are put off by that attitude and the elitism that automatically labels them as stupid and lazy.

For further reading, Baumeister has a new book out, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, co-authored with New York Times science writer John Tierney. I mentioned Willpower as a book of interest in my year-end book wrap-up, as, while Baumeister’s research is accessible, I also believe in getting good science writing from the source whenever possible, so keep an eye out if you find this a topic of interest.