Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why I Insist on Complexity

It likely would surprise no one who has been reading my blog to know that I studied psychology. While it may be logical (and certainly would be understandable) to believe that this was a choice made by a fat girl raised by very messed up parents (alcoholic father, mood disordered-mother) to explore why she was such a mess as well, that actually was not the case. When I entered college, I didn't know for certain what I wanted to study. In fact, psychology wasn't even on the list at first.

Initially, I was torn between choosing math, biology, chemistry, or art as a major. Because I wasn't certain which path to pursue, I spent my first year and a half at college taking a variety of courses to see what felt right. Oddly enough, I wasn't a fan of psychology until I took my second course and read a few books on my own. In the end, it was not my desire to fix anyone, particularly not myself, that made me choose that major. It was the multitude of theories that abounded to explain the complex puzzle of human behavior. Though I was interested in hard sciences and was not the least bit intimidated by them (as many women supposedly are), I liked the fact that psychology was part science and part philosophy and that the answers were more elusive.

Unlike hard sciences, psychology is not dependent upon the accuracy and technology of the instruments being used in its practices to find answers. For example, in biological experiments, our understanding is only as good as the accuracy of our instruments when measuring cell activity. Expansion of knowledge is more dependent upon better instrumentality rather than on theory, observation, or intuition. Psychology relies much more on individuals, and the debate and depth of understanding required to really understand human behavior is more challenging.

Ironically, though I was drawn to psychology based on the potential for ambiguity and inability to measure precisely, I found myself more attracted to the theories that were most easily proven. I embraced Behaviorism, which is a philosophy that is based on the idea that behaviors are learned or conditioned. It's a tidy philosophy which is easy to create experiments for and to measure. We'd do things like put rats in Skinner boxes and teach them to press a bar for a food pellet and generalized that humans in the same way would act for rewards or not act because of punishment.

My "hard science" approach to psychology in school further included intense study of the biology of behavior and the chemistry of the brain in particular. The way we studied it, it all seemed so cut and dry. We read that schizophrenia was caused by increased levels of Dopamine in the brain, so something which inhibited the uptake of that particular neurotransmitter was the "cure". While I was in college, the entire process seemed so tidy and neat. Behaviors were conditioned (learned) in or out of existence. Chemical imbalances were corrected with medication.

After graduating from college, I got a job in a mental health-related non-profit agency. I worked with people who were seriously mentally ill. In fact, I dealt with people who had had psychotic breaks and had been placed in a psychiatric ward or a mental institution, but had gotten well enough to leave those facilities. My entire worldview based on my studies in college radically altered. All of that tidy explaining and curing meant nothing in the real world. People are so much more complex than Behaviorism with its rats and controlled learning situations could explain. Human brains are so much more delicate than the books made us believe. You couldn't just pour medication into people and balance their brains like some lab experiment. Every chemical interaction caused some sort of negative reaction. People couldn't be tuned like machines. Even when the right chemical cocktail was applied to a psychotic mind and worked for some time, something would change and that very same cocktail would cease to keep their hallucinations at bay eventually.

Learning also is not as tidy as many behavioral theories would lead you to believe. My poor hungry little rat in his box did learn to press the bar for a food pellet, but he also picked up a superstitious behavior. The first time he made the mental connection between the bar and food, he happened to turn around in a circle in the box. Because of this, he circled around every time before he pressed the bar even though it had nothing to do with getting the reward. Like my rat, we similarly make connections between things that aren't related when we learn things. For some who grew up with abusive parents, that might be a connection between abuse and love which causes them to seek out partners who are cruel because they think love and pain are as interconnected as my rat's turning around and pressing the bar in his box (note: I do not speak of myself - I was not abused physically).

These connections aren't formed cleanly, simply, or obviously, so we need to scrutinize carefully to develop an understanding and untangle the destructive from the constructive and be mindful of the fact that there is comfort in following even destructive or useless actions. My rat would almost certainly have experienced anxiety if not allowed to perform his little turn around before hitting the bar because he would have felt that the reward may not have been forthcoming. It would have taken many successful attempts to lose the stress associated with abandoning the superstitious behavior. Similarly, people who find comfort in some destructive behavior (such as eating up food they don't want rather than throwing it away) are going to find it hard to simply abandon that behavior for "rational" reasons.

How does all of my back story apply to this blog, which is about losing weight? Well, I offer this information for two reasons. First of all, I want it to be understood that all of my talk about psychology in this blog isn't idle speculation or mere navel gazing. I do know what I'm talking about to some extent (at least). I have a professional interest and education and experience in behavioral science.

The other reason is that I want to provide some insight into why I am so adamant about seeing weight problems or issues in a manner which embraces complexity rather than simplicity. Human behavior is not simple. Interactions with our environment whether it be food, other people, the stuffed toys which we form odd attachments to, or that favorite tree outside our window, are never something which are simple to change. Just as giving a pill to a psychotic person to stop the way their brain caused them to hear voices caused other aspects to change in unfavorable ways, changing your lifestyle to lose weight will cause other changes as well.

Behaviors all happen for a reason, whether it is emotional or physical, and changing one area will create a shortcoming or change in another. You can't simply choose to alter your course from unhealthy habits and fly the path of health and virtuous living without some sort of fall-out, and you didn't follow your original course capriciously or because of character flaws. You were either inclined to do so biologically or conditioned to do so psychologically (or both). So, I insist on complexity, because everything in my life that I have learned and experienced to date have shown me that that is the reality of our existence.


Anonymous said...

You have just summarized some of the reasons I enjoy your blog so much!

I also admire your clarity and your ability to communicate complex ideas with vivid images that illustrate your main points. (Your little rat turning in a circle, for instance, in relation to the the anxiety that he would experience if prevented from turning.) There are rituals associated with my own eating experiences. To devalue their power is to invite them to return and bite me in the ass when I least expect it.

Eating peanut butter from the jar seems innocuous enough, I suppose, if portioned out carefully. Some might assume the problems associated with craving a particular food originate only in the substance (peanut butter). But in my case it is the act of scooping it directly from the jar into my mouth that provokes troublesome (obsessive/compulsive) feelings/behaviors, even if the spoon I use is a measuring spoon. I do better to create a new ritual.

Thus, nowadays, no bites of ice cream taken directly from the carton. No peanut butter spooned from the jar to my mouth. Perhaps those originated as furtive actions, necessary in a home where sneaking was a prerequisite for access to anything *special*. As much as I might rationalize their innocence, those actions will forever be associated with guilt, fear, and repressed anger.


Sarah@LowStressWeightLoss said...

Very interesting post! I agree that weight loss is complex. Changing behavior is wickedly complex. Still, I do believe we can find solutions to complex problems that are simpler - at least that's what I'm hoping for!

dlamb said...

We took such similar paths, ten years apart. Like Rebecca, I enjoy your blog for your insight and analysis. It stands apart completely from the numerous "just do it, it is not rocket science, if I did it you can do it" nonsense spewed by those unwilling to lift the lid off the issues.
In fact, it is considerably more difficult than rocket science and it would not do those individuals much harm to take a peek at the (often) complex reasons they achieved their goal and sustained their effort. On second thought, perhaps it would, initially do them some harm, which may explain why they choose the simplistic explanation for their own success and the failure of others.

Sometimes it is not the obvious, the stated, that was and is the driving force but looking just below the surface may open up a Pandora's box and rock their easy, superficial belief system.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi,again, and thanks for your comment! As always! :-)

My husband read a few books about how people think and it takes a lot more energy to go beneath the surface. People prefer easy answers and explanations, even when they don't work (or work temporarily). There also appears to be a strange abhorrence of psychology among a lot of people. They think it's an "excuse" to navel gaze instead of "doing something".

I'm not sure why people can't see that both thinking and acting are possible. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Of course, one of the hallmarks of those with persistent weight issues is that they often are too much about "all or nothing."