9 December 2020
The Mind: An Introduction for Fitness Enthusiasts
Have you ever pondered the momentous complexity of the human mind? How it shapes our thoughts and decisions? The way it interprets information, constructs our beliefs and influences our actions? Exploring these queries has been a tremendous mind-opener for me (pun intended) and has improved my self-awareness markedly. Not only am I better able to understand my…
Have you ever pondered the momentous complexity of the human mind? How it shapes our thoughts and decisions? The way it interprets information, constructs our beliefs and influences our actions? Exploring these queries has been a tremendous mind-opener for me (pun intended) and has improved my self-awareness markedly. Not only am I better able to understand my own thoughts and actions, but I am armed with the knowledge that can help the people around me. The truth is, though, nobody knows how the brain brings rise to the human mind – the ability to think about thinking; to experience feelings; to imagine the unimaginable, and to simply be conscious. Some think that the 1.5kg clump of neural tissue contains magical properties, but neuroscientists are adamant that a theoretical explanation exists. Whether that explanation will ever be illuminated is a different story.
In this two-part series, I am going to first introduce you to the mind and some of its baggage. You see, the mind carries a whole heap of baggage that we are completely unaware of. Baggage that is actively influencing our thoughts, decisions and behaviour in a subconscious manner. Once done this, my second aim is to showcase how understanding the concepts I propose can help you in your fitness journey. Over the span of two articles I am to concisely cover:
- Cognitive bias
- Decision making
- Your behaviour
- Your behaviour and the environment
Cognitive bias can be simply described as a ‘systematic error in thinking,’ one that biases (or directs) you toward a – probably – faulty conclusion. Faulty in the sense that the conclusion is not a true representation of reality. Any one of the cognitive steps leading to a conclusion are subjective to experiencing bias.
An example of this is as follows:
Say you are attending a fitness seminar. One of the hosts is well-presented, has an exceptional physique and a large social media following – you couldn’t help but run their name through the Instagram search bar. They speak about the superiority of a plant-based diet compared to a standard animal-based diet and you are quite impressed with their level of knowledge. Although you weren’t in complete agreeance with their proposition beforehand, you decide to take the information on board. Besides, you aren’t the expert – they are! Upon arriving home, mind boggling with new information, you decide to do further research. Your google search reads, “Why is a plant-based diet better than an animal-based diet?”. The amount of results confirming the superiority of a plant-based diet are endless. Your confidence about the newly acquired information drastically increases and you immediately label your previously held viewpoint as incorrect. Your conclusion: “The host is exactly right, plant-based diets are the way to go!”
Any idea as to why this conclusion may be faulty? Hint: There are two cognitive biases evident throughout the hypothetical (but still common) scenario.
The Halo Effect – In the 1920’s, Edward L. Thorndike, an American psychologist, discovered that physical appearances are the most influential in determining our overall impressions of another person’s character (1). And recent evidence demonstrates that we are blinded by beauty (alluding to the subconscious cognitive bias) when assessing another individuals intelligence (2). This means we are more likely to believe people who catch our eye, with minimal hesitation.
Confirmation Bias – Evident in the google search, confirmation bias describes the tendency to search for and favour information that confirms or supports your beliefs. This is a widespread cognitive bias that every human on planet earth is subject to experience. Being aware of its existence is one of the only counter-measures. The next time you want to confirm whether something is true, your first point of call should be seeking out evidence that opposes it.
The above highlights only two out of what is likely to be hundreds of cognitive biases. If you are a continual seeker of fitness information, it is vital that you understand there are a multitude of avenues which can affect the conclusions that you acquire. This is where self-awareness, combined with an awareness of the tripwires (cognitive biases) implanted in your mind, shines.
Figure 1 The ‘cognitive bias codex’ displays a list and brief overview of the known cognitive biases.
Decision making can be either a hard, or an easy task. Thinking through problems systematically (in a step-wise manner) and coming to a careful decision is energy expensive. Your brain feeds on glucose constantly (3), and the harder it is required to think, the more glucose it will suck from your blood. However, as your thinking ability sharpens, the brain learns to be quiet – you would think that smart people have an overly-active brain, but in fact, it is the opposite. This is demonstrated in studies that explore the learning process and track the subjects brain activity along the way. In one study, as subjects became more competent with Tetris, brain activity decreased (4). Their thinking became more efficient and required less energy; initially, their brain was working in overdrive! The relevance of this point will become clear later.
The aforementioned – systematic – thinking can also be termed rational: based on or in accordance with reason or logic. Indeed, this type of thinking isn’t innate for homo sapiens. The portion of the brain (the neocortex) that instigates this form of higher-order thinking is one of the latest to evolve. Evolution is continually refining the neocortex, providing contemporary humans with a seemingly unlimited capacity to think and learn. But although it has been under construction for hundreds of thousands of years, our innate tendency to make decisions is shaped by the type of brain that allowed our ancestors to survive on planet earth for three million years; this makes a hundred thousand years seem miniscule. The evolutionary timeline is so vast that we just haven’t caught up to current times, and as time (and technology) continues to advance, we probably never will.
For example, evolution didn’t anticipate the creation of social media, and thus the ability to apprehend large amounts of gossip in a matter of minutes; humans find gossip somewhat protective, it allows us to better understand the people within our environment and potentially explains why some of us can’t put our phone down. The implication of this evolutionary delay is that humans are still very prone to making emotionally driven decisions. In ancestral times, emotional decisions were in most cases, desirable ones. For example, it is best to swiftly presume the rustling in the bush is a tiger about to pounce as opposed to rationalising the wind as the culprit. Although more often than not the wind is to blame, when life is at stake and the seconds are passing, there is merely time to think systematically.
Our mind has maintained the ability to register external stimuli and process them entirety emotionally (through the amygdala), before our neocortex is even aware of their existence. This process can produce a decision. A very rapid decision that can be faulty. Processing stimuli solely through the amygdala can be troublesome and is analogous to trying to interpret a very pixelated image; the neocortex is responsible for cleaning the image and providing a clear-cut view.
Now, I want to make two points clear: a) by no means am I discrediting the role of emotion in decision making; and b) completely separating emotional and rational thinking is impossible anyway.
The main thesis of this section is to reveal the interplay between emotion and rationality, and showcase the importance and difficulty of rational thinking, particularly in fitness contexts. Let’s take fat loss dieting for example; have you ever made regrettable or guilt-inducing decisions while dieting? Eating that slice of cheesecake, having the extra shot (which led to 5 more), calling it quits to only re-engage the next day, snapping at your partner for overcooking your chicken. These common decisions are likely to be – predominately – emotionally fuelled.
I think this section is a first point of call for anyone wanting to make better decisions. Of course, the science behind decision making doesn’t stop here, but acknowledging that you actually have to stop and think can’t be preceded. Giving yourself a few seconds to assess the situation is the only way to engage the neocortex and obtain a clear-cut perspective. This ability requires fostering; remember, thinking is actually hard at first, but gets easier as you practice! The next time you catch yourself reaching for that slice of cheesecake, stop and think – you might just tip the scale.
I hope this piece has provided you with some newfound knowledge about the mind, and how what we say, think and do can be greatly influenced by hidden baggage that has been passed down the evolutionary conveyor belt, from one generation to the next. Whether you find the information useful depends on how willing you are to foster your ability to think systematically when making decisions and to not fool yourself into making faulty conclusions (via cognitive biases).
The remaining topics mentioned in the outset of this article will be explored in Part 2.