Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Taking Advantage of the Stupid Brain–an Exercise Hack

A lot of recovery focuses on how amazing the brain is, how it is astoundingly good at picking up the slack left by damage, and how resilient it is. To be this way, the brain itself has to be stupid and lazy, at least when it comes to self-aware animals like us. If we're cunning, though we can use some of that stupidity and laziness to our advantage.

The brain is evolutionarily geared to prefer activity that takes least effort for greatest reward. Throughout our lives, it tries to make our actions, in particular, as efficient as possible. Not only do we use less energy that way, but we end up using fewer neurons for things that we do repeatedly, and have more brain left over for complex, abstract thought. If you have ever got to work but don't remember the coffee you drank on the way, you've felt this.

This process can be seen in children when they go through adolescence and prune an amazing number of neural pathways to leave optimal paths, and the clumsy duckling becomes an elegant swan. It's what is really going on when we talk about "muscle memory"—when a complex sequence of physical actions is neurally optimized as an atomic unit that, once initiated, completes without conscious intervention.

It's impossible to decide consciously which path is going to be optimized, and which is going to be discarded; repetition tends to be the key, at least for physical activity. How do we determine, though, what habits of mind we can form?

Although the impetus to exercise was clear to me, a year ago, it's not so clear now, not so immediate. Put another way, the small incremental gains I get in function are proportionately less significant, so I appear to be getting less reward for more effort. Put yet another way, it's gotten harder to go to the gym and pool.

So I tried a hack on my brain, to see if I could make going to the gym (and pool) easier. I've already made the going as efficient (and energetically cheap) as possible, so the idea was to front-load the reward. Typically the benefits of exercise that we can sense, and the brain can operate on, come too late for us to associate the action of going to exercise with the reward of having exercised. The hack was simple: any time I thought about the action of going to exercise, I would then say to myself, with a mental tone of glee, "ooh, goodie! I'm going swimming tomorrow!"

That was it. I didn't have to mean it, and I frequently didn't, I just had to think (or say) it, no matter how artificial. That was the totality of my experiment.

It worked.

I was far more likely to actually go to the pool or gym, after I had thought "yippee! gym tomorrow! and legs, I love legs!" (I don't), the night before. I'm hoping that in two or three years' time, I won't have to say my silly fake mantra, because my brain will have associated the benefits of the exercise with the (short and painless) drudgery of getting to the exercise. Until then, "Yay! Skeevy pool tomorrow!"