16 January 2020

Eating Fast and Slow

by Aidan Mackey 0

Have you ever felt as though you just know something?  You are led by that feeling of pre-existing knowledge. You’ve seen this before. You’ve been here before. You’ve felt this before. Your decision to act is a done deal. On the other side of the same coin, maybe your decisions have occurred completely automatically without…

Have you ever felt as though you just know something? 

You are led by that feeling of pre-existing knowledge. You’ve seen this before. You’ve been here before. You’ve felt this before. Your decision to act is a done deal.

On the other side of the same coin, maybe your decisions have occurred completely automatically without regard to feeling.

These things are what we know as intuitive thinking. It’s a quick and easy way to make decisions, it saves us time and also, we feel very confident in the moment we act on it so… it’s a ‘no-brainer’! 

Intuitive thinking or Intuitions are often hailed as the best way to go, “we should believe in ourselves” but it seems there could be a grand scale misreading of signals from the ‘gut’. 

But what does science have to say about these instincts? 

In order to understand this topic more “intuitively,” we will be better served by introducing some names and specific language.

The typical name used in cognitive psychology regarding how we make decisions is Dual Systems Theory, which describes the two different approaches we can use to make decisions. Utilising either System 1 or System 2.
System 1 is classic intuition. It produces decisions rapidly, in a manner that is automatic and effectively effortless. System 2 on the other hand is responsible for decisions made in a more controlled manner, through conscious effort and deliberation. It is voluntary, as opposed to automatic, and requires much more cognitive effort. 

In regard to the descriptions above, System 2 has obvious benefits, however it is limited by our attention span and cognitive horsepower—not to mention our actual knowledge of the area we wish to make a judgement on. Other cognitively demanding, and thus draining, tasks such as self-monitoring are also the responsibility of System 2 (self-monitoring being the control and integration of oneself into an environment by altering behaviour appropriate to their setting [Snyder, 1979]). Due to the strain and focus required for System 2 operations, our performance is significantly impaired by concurrent tasks. It does not excel at multitasking or in distracting environments.  

So, where does nutrition fit in to this Dual System Theory?

Everybody is susceptible to making judgements based on reasons that are not fully formed, but instead rather intuitive decisions that come under the province of System 1 thinking. We are also highly susceptible to making decisions based on our innate drive to eat, whether that be for hunger or pleasure. The food decisions made and the processing of these decisions is a fascinating and very important area of consideration, especially if you desire to achieve and maintain an impressive physique.

As a nutrition coach, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can get my clients to have full control over their food intake and really call the shots. I like the idea of empowering each client with the ability to not only use data but to possess the ability to make choices when the data is not readily accessed or calculated with a smartphone and set of kitchen scales. While tracking food has its benefits, I prefer to see it as an option rather than a necessity. The idea is to develop your ability to track and process your options cognitively, with relative ease, and not constantly be relying on MyFitnessPal.

Someone who completed pioneering work in this area of thinking and cognitive computation is Daniel Kahneman, a famed behavioural economist. He wrote a best-selling book titled Thinking Fast and Slow which helped many of these academic ideas reach a mainstream audience. Admittedly, I haven’t read the book, yet, but I did read his 2009 paperwith Gary Klein discussing the research on expert intuition. This, along with some related work, lead me to draw parallels between Dual System Theory and the three circuits of human energy intake. Or in other words, why we eat

The three systems that determine our caloric consumption are:

  1. The Homeostatic system– This is our need to eat for self-preservation. ‘Not dying’ as I like to call it.
  2. The Food reward system / hedonic system– This circuitry is wired up to give us pleasure from eating, we tend to want more than we need with this system in action and embedded in its function is to seek out highly caloric, energy dense foods for the least amount of work necessary to procure them. 
  3. Executive control – This is our ability to cognitively control our actions and make decisions based on our best interests using our current knowledge, understanding and directed attention. 

We can see how System 1 governs a lot of our food intake, both the Homeostatic and the Hedonic circuitry power decisions made intuitively, automatically and typically beneath the level of conscious awareness.

System 2 though is directly parallel with the Executive Control circuitry. It is purposeful, derived from effort and the internal decision processing is computed by our level of knowledge and capacity to utilize attention and motivation. 

While it is easy to compartmentalise our complex systems and think of them running exclusive to each other, in actuality they are all intertwined, and each can feed forward to the next. ie. homeostatic drive can feed forward to the hedonic drive and the executive circuitry can be the last circuit to pull the trigger on a decision or act as a compass.

A handy way to think of the Executive function circuitry is an Air Traffic Controller. A really well functioning air traffic controller reads all the signals, understands the situation and then directs things from there.

Something we need to consider is that homeostatic circuits are rarely ever challenged in the modern Western world. We have an abundance of food available and have so many different options that we can even have our own preferences within the category of various highly palatable foods. Pepsi or Coke, right? 

This leaves the remaining two systems to fight it out for determining what and how much we eat. We have on one hand the pleasure driven Food Reward system that would just die for some donuts, or the Executive Circuitry which would much prefer to lose 5kgs… 

The outcome of this battle has a lot to do with our intuitions and the cognitive effort we utilise regarding our diet. I will discuss more in my next article about how we can provide the competitive edge to our System 2 and win the battle over the short-term thinking System 1.

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