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my amygdala made me do it, part II

February 23, 2012

[Greetings, and welcome to Chasing Maybes. Here, I challenge myself not to believe everything I think,  and I aim to give assumptions the full court press.  Thanks for joining me in the chase.]

For the last few days, I’ve been preoccupied by thoughts of excess and restraint, and I blame Ernest Hemingway.

More to the point, I blame The Paris Wife:  A Novel, a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s early career written in the voice of his first wife, Hadley.  I’ve been listening to this novel on audiobook while I run in the mornings (don’t worry, folks, I’ve only fallen once), and it is escapist fun.  I’ve been transported, courtesy of author Paula McLain, to 1920’s Paris, to Pamplona’s bullfights, and to the slopes of Schruns, Austria.  I’ve eavesdropped on Ernest and his pals (including Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound) talking art and philosophizing.  I’ve shared unsteady tables with them in Madrid, watching them down bottle after bottle of good wine and cheap beer.  [This book is fiction, of course, but it is fiction based on research and well-documented lore.  Anyone who has ever been to Spain has heard the frequent refrain, “And this is a bar where Ernest Hemingway wrote…”]  I’ve imagined Ernest at his typewriter for twenty hours a day, barely stopping to pour himself another drink.  Hemingway and his contemporaries embraced excess of all kinds — drink, work, machismo, travel, violence — and, while I thoroughly enjoyed The Paris Wife, upon finishing this book I felt a little, well, hungover.

It was in this mindset that I approached both yesterday’s aforementioned professional seminar (Food for Thought:  How Nutrients Affect Mental Health and the Brain) and the season of Lent.

[“Is this where she starts talking about the amygdala?” you wonder, squinting again at your iPad.  “I’m still wondering why she put ‘amygdala’ in this post’s title.  Pretentious, if you ask me.”]

I grew up in a Presbyterian church where the observance of Lent was marked by study and reflection.  I was only aware of the practice of giving something up for Lent because I had friends of different religious backgrounds who did so.  As a young adult, I used Lent as an opportunity to spend 40 days starving myself of something I enjoyed — magazines, television, sweets, french fries — and feeling virtuous for it, even when I ate the occasional Oreo or watched the occasional episode of “The Real World.”  I took the practice only as far as self-denial, so any restraint I exercised felt like a victory.  I thought restraint was the only point.

At the workshop I attended yesterday, the health psychologist instructor shared eight hours worth of information about the effects of nutrition on brain function.  There is no way I could summarize his lecture — and you really wouldn’t want me to try… trust me — but some of his points stuck with me.  He talked extensively about how inflammation in the body can lead to depression, cardiovascular problems, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease, and how eating too much sugar is one cause of this inflammation.  He talked about how the amygdala, a region of our brain associated with “lower” functioning, remembers the joy associated with certain foods — however unhealthy they might be — and can overpower the executive decision-making skills of the “higher” brain, the prefrontal cortex.  Strategies to “stall” the amygdala, like relaxation and mindfulness exercises, can help give the prefrontal cortex time to problem-solve rather than impulsively choose foods that may damage the body.

The instructor shared reams of research about the effects of simple carbohydrates and sugar on both mood and on general health.  What resonated most with me, though, was associated with absolutely no documented research.

“For breakfast tomorrow, eat a cinnamon roll.  Wait two hours.  Write down how you feel,” he said sternly from behind his very scholarly podium.  “The next day, eat steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast.  Write down how you feel two hours later.”  He looked up at the sea of expectant faces in the audience.  “That’s it, folks.”

I sat up straighter in my conference center-issued, terribly uncomfortable chair at his simple recommendation.  I thought about how, at some point during the morning’s lecture, I’d bravely resolved to give up sugar based on his compelling presentation.  Next, I thought about my years of Lenten “sacrifice;” I thought of each forty day abstention from little pleasures, each absent one critical ingredient.  Briefly, I thought about Hemingway.

The giving up without the tuning in — mere change without reflection — is just vanity, isn’t it?  Or (worse) is it hypocrisy?

Laugh if you want, but “Write down how you feel two hours later” may be the best advice I’ve received in a very long time.  I can criticize Hemingway and his Lost Generation all I want for their excesses, but they never failed to “write down how they felt;” they understood the need to reflect.

I’d say that seminar was worth the $79 registration fee.

Last night, I told Steve I couldn’t stop thinking about excess and restraint, and he quoted “God Part II,” a favorite song by U2:

Don’t believe in excess
Success is to give
Don’t believe in riches
But you should see where I live
I…I believe in love

U2 God Part II

So, I’m not giving up sugar for Lent.  For now, I’m just going to do the best I can.  Mindful sometimes, reptilian-brained at others, I’ll do my best to write down how I feel two hours later.  I promise to keep you posted, and thanks, as always, for showing up.

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