Tapping into the brain’s plasticity for weight loss

I wish I had a brain scan from before I lost weight so I could see how it would compare to what my brain looks like now.

Based on an article in the December 2013 issue of Discover magazine, I can’t help wondering if the slides might look dramatically different.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz

The article focuses on the research of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, whose meditation experiments helped OCD patients liberate themselves from overpowering compulsions — and actually resulted in physical changes within the brain itself.

Schwartz’s four-step therapy process involved techniques not unlike those used by compulsive overeaters who train themselves to ignore or bypass cravings. The central notion was the realization that faulty wiring in their brains was responsible for their bizarre behavior – a discovery that helped them distance their thoughts and behavior from their sense of self and deflect the guilt that magnified the problem.

Schwartz encouraged pastients to view their compulsive thoughts as an “error message,” a technique he calls relabeling.

“It’s not me – it’s my OCD!,” exclaimed one of his patients in what amounted to her “eureka” moment.

After 10 weeks of the experiments — which included “refocusing” on a healthy behavior to replace a compulsion and systematically deconstructing and “devaluing” previously powerful urges – Schwartz’s patients reported that their intrusive thoughts occurred less frequently and with less intensity. For all practical purposes, Schwartz said, they’d rewired their brains, displaying a plasticity — capacity for change — that we tend to think of as being available only to children.

To me, all this feels very familiar. Before I could change my eating habits, I had to come up with ways to distance my compulsive eating from my sense of self — though I can’t pretend I thought of it in precisely those terms, or set about it very scientifically. I blamed my food greed on my “inner child,” for instance, which made it easier to ignore demands “she” made. I systematically “deconstructed and devalued” cravings one by one,  including one memorable experiment with a quarter pounder with cheese several months into the project. (This particular food was already losing its grip on me because I was learning to ignore the “error message” cravings from my brain, and after this experiment I was never troubled by this specific urge ever again.)

Schwartz’s OCD patients had hyperactivity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a decision-making part of the brain, and particularly in the caudate nucleus, which acts as the “habit center.”

“The images turned up in PET scans as bursts of color, rendering these brain regions as small fires, perpetually burning and, clearly, altering the functioning of the brain even when no episode was underway,”  explained Discover writer Steve Volk. Later images showed these “fires” had been reduced to mere embers, if not completely doused.

Is there an OCD link to overeating? Maybe. All I know is, my brain really did feel like it was “on fire” around trigger foods — or even when I simply tried to resist eating as a coping mechanism.

Though I’m still prone to overeating if I’m not careful, in general I feel much calmer in the presence of temptation these days. I’d be curious to see what that difference looks like to a neurologist.

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2 Responses to Tapping into the brain’s plasticity for weight loss

  1. bgddyjim says:

    This is a VERY interesting topic. We recovering drunks have been looking for something like this for, well since alcohol was invented… Anyway, the trick is we have to stay away from those triggers for this to work.

    I have rewired my brain to not need alcohol and so it will stay… Until the instant that first drop crosses my lips. At that point all bets are off, the embers explode into a violent ball of “fall from grace”.

  2. tischcaylor says:

    Yes, I much prefer the embers to the roaring flames. Can’t delude myself that the fire is ever completely extinguished.

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