Bioethics Blogs

How to Stop Over-Eating — Lessons from Brain Science

Put our brains into the modern food environment, and you have a recipe for disaster. Our brains are hardwired to crave calorie-dense foods, this craving no doubt arising from our evolutionary time spent on the Tundra where calories were often scarce. But our modern food environment surrounds us with calorie-dense foods, forcing us to deplete limited willpower trying to keep our cravings from turning into over-consumption. Fortunately, brain science hints at several ways to reduce this pattern of craving and consumption.

Let’s start with a part of the brain called the left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, a region important for helping restrain ourselves from engaging in unwanted behaviors. Do something to disable the dlPFC (as the cool kids call it), and you will lose self-control or willpower. For example, psychologists often measure self-control using something called the Stroop effect, in which people are asked to quickly state, say, the color of a series of fonts. This seems like it should be pretty simple.

In the Stroop task, however, every once in a while people get something like the following:

How to Stop Overeating 2

When people see this word they are supposed to say “red” because the word is in a red font. But many people blurt out “green” instead, unable to inhibit the impulse. As it turns out, when researchers use a clinical stimulator to zap the dlPFC, people’s performance on the Stroop task declines. Here, in case you are interested, is a picture of one of these stimulators – don’t let a stranger persuade you to place one on your head!

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.