Your primitive brain is SERIOUSLY primitive. It doesn’t think or reason, it only feels and reacts. That’s why I often compare it to a dog – there’s very limited understanding of cause and effect. It’s got huge responsibility (running bodily functions and emotions!) but it can’t determine where your emotions are coming from or why. And it’s not its job to care – hello, prefrontal cortex!
So if you feel happy when you eat ice cream, your primitive brain will send you signals to do more of that. If you mentally beat yourself up when you finish eating ice cream, your primitive brain will want to do something to avoid the beatings. But all it really knows is that you were happy eating ice cream and now that you’re not eating ice cream, you’re upset. So the simple answer is to eat more ice cream! Right?!? Do you see how that actually would make sense to a dog’s brain? Your primitive brain wants you feeling happy and safe, so when you stop eating ice cream and start beating yourself up it will do anything for you to be happy again, just like your favorite pooch!
Lucky for those of you who own dogs and have successfully trained them, you can apply the same concepts to train your primitive brain. Every successful dog trainer knows it’s far better to reward than try to punish dogs into good behavior. Let’s say you’d like to train your primitive brain to stop wanting soda. Yelling at the “dog” when she drinks soda scares her into being afraid of drinking the soda, but it doesn’t make her want the soda any less. And the next time you’re not looking, she’s going to gulp down as much soda as she can! But if you consistently offer a choice between water and soda, and then reward her with praise or back scratches when she drinks water, over time she will prefer the water.
So please, stop beating yourself up for unhealthy food choices. Forgive, forget and use your prefrontal cortex to make better choices next time. And when you consume healthy things, pause to feel good about it – essentially praising yourself for making a good choice. By making your mind a friendlier place, your primitive brain will relax and stop desperately sending you signals to eat more ice cream!