Disrupt Your Brain’s Autopilot with Mindful Eating

March 23, 2022Blog

Wlive most of our lives on autopilot. Do any of us really pay attention? How many times have you opened the refrigerator door and had no memory of what you wanted? I bet you blamed it on a “Senior moment.” It’s easy to blame an aging brain. But more than likely you were barely conscious of a thought like, I need a rib celery for the soup, you reacted to the thought on autopilot by going to the refrigerator. But by the time you opened the door, your mind – ever on autopilot – was already on to thinking about something else and completely forgot about the celery.

Autopilot is our default. Literally. Neuroscientists call it the Default Mode Network (DMN). It’s our brain’s mechanism that helps us survive because doing things automatically saves brain power. It’s actually necessary for us to function. The DMN saves brain power by putting both thoughts and behaviors on automatic. Whether it’s scrolling Facebook, or driving a car, It turns out that the average adult spends 47% of their waking hours not paying attention.

Autopilot isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s associated with memory, and saving mental energy can be useful. Remember the mental effort you had to exert when you first learned to drive? Imagine having to exert that same effort every time you get behind the wheel. If we had to use mental energy with that intensity all the time, we’d be exhausted. On the flip side, not enough attention is usually how accidents happen. So, while necessary for survival, autopilot is detrimental when it takes over.

Overeating on Autopilot

Eating on autopilot is more complicated than you might think. It involves a complex web of thoughts and feelings as well as behaviors. And what you’re feeling and thinking is just as habitual as the eating itself. The thing about autopilot is it limits our perception. We get involved in the same rut of internal dialogue and feelings, usually self-criticism and self-loathing, that aren’t easy to break out of. Which is why mindful eating is an important tool if you want to get off autopilot and take control of your food choices.

The first step is awareness. You can’t change something until you are familiar with it.

How Mindful Eating Works

Shortly after I went to my first mindful eating workshop I was still unsure how looking at my overeating with openness and curiosity was going to get me anywhere when a friend and I went to a Mexican restaurant. They brought us a generous basket of tortilla chips, as Mexican restaurants do. My brain started firing. First came the habitual dialog. “I shouldn’t,” “Ooh they look so good,” “They smell wonderful,” “I’ll just have a few.” And of course I started eating and they were amazing, the crunchy salty chips dipped in salsa that added tang and a hint of sweetness was irresistible – for me at least. My friend ate a few handfuls and stopped, reminding me that dinner was coming. I kept crunching away. Then came the familiar dialogue, “I need to stop.” “Just one more.” With every chip it was “Just one more.” and again, “Just one more.” and so it went. Even when our dinners arrived I was still scooping up refried beans with the chips. Until Groan. I rolled out of the restaurant stuffed, bloated and feeling horrible. Not just physically bad, but also embarrassed at my behavior.

But something had changed. When you’re on autopilot, it’s like you have blinders on and what you can see is limited. Disrupting autopilot removes the blinders, widens your perceptions and helps you to see things with fresh eyes and a more compassionate heart.

The “Just one more” trap

As we left the restaurant I was aware of three new things. One was the actual taste sensation. The salt, sweet, crunch and tang, were a complexity that I hadn’t noticed before and I was able to acknowledge that chips were irresistible because of the intense flavors and not due to my moral weakness. The other thing I recognized was the “Just one more trap.” I’d fallen into it so many times before without realizing it, with chips, french fries, cookies, anything small. Just one more, over and over again. Though I had to fall into that trap several more times before I could stop it. Finally I actually let myself really experience how truly awful I felt physically. The accompanying guilt and shame were still there, but I was able to set those feelings aside and just acknowledge how awful I felt. It’s a lot easier to stop doing something if you remember how bad it makes you feel.

I wish I could tell you that if you start eating mindfully you’ll magically stop overeating immediately and you’ll be satisfied with just a handful of chips. But it doesn’t work that way. Binges, like the one I describe above, done with a little less autopilot and a little more mindfulness lay the foundation for a new relationship with food. It doesn’t work overnight.

Our Default Mode Network builds up throughout our lifetime. By the time we get to middle age it’s pretty much entrenched. Most neuroscientists agree, a mindfulness practice is the best way to disrupt the DMN and get our minds off autopilot. It is possible to stop overeating.

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