Thursday, October 23, 2008

Play It Cool, Boy

It's not one of my usual blog topics, but in fact, I am fascinated with the way the brain works. This week, research came out that showed how people resist temptation--and it reminded me fondly of my dad! I have to take a moment to share it with you.

The question is about delaying gratification. Political economists have been interested in this for centuries: for instance, Max Weber thought that the capacity to work hard and wait for your reward was what made capitalism possible. Today, according to a Boston Globe article, Columbia University psychologist Walter Mitschel's research says the ability to delay gratification is linked to "everything from SAT scores to social skills to academic achievement."

So how do you wait for your pleasure, or even give up certain things indefinitely? Part of it is "the ability to imagine a future event clearly," according to Yale professor Jeremy Gray. As a planner, I do that all the time. I resist opening every email that comes across my desk right away, focusing on what I need to do to reach my deadlines.

But another part may be the ability to "cool the hot stimulus."

...the trick is to shift activity from "hot," more primitive areas deep in the brain to "cool," more rational areas mainly in the higher centers of the brain.
My dad, Mel Fischman, was a master at cooling the hot stimulus. I always remember the story he told me about how he quit smoking, long before I was born. "I knew smoking was bad for me, and I wanted to stop, but I was having trouble," he told me. "So I sat down and thought about what exactly I was doing when I smoked. I was burning a bunch of tobacco leaves and inhaling the smoke into my lungs. Now, would I stand in my backyard burning leaves, take a deep breath, and say "Mmm, that's good'? Of course not! So why should I say that when the leaves were in a little tube instead?"

When I first heard this story, I thought it was just too clear, too rational. It couldn't have happened like that. I am still convinced that my dad relied on social support more than he let on. But the research (and my own experience with breaking old habits and adopting others, like controlling what I eat and walking daily) shows me that what my dad said was probably mostly true. Thanks to his skill at shifting to a different part of his brain, I grew up in a non-smoking household. I am so grateful!

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