What is Working Memory and why does it matter for weight loss?
People come to you for help and advice about making changes to how or what they eat. Some clients may be able to take the information you offer and put it into action without a backward glance, grateful for your expert help.
But you may have worked with other clients who value your expertise, know they need your help and are desperate to change, but who don’t seem to be able to put into action what you’re advising. Understanding more about the psychology of eating behaviour can help your professional practice deepen, and enable you to help more people make life-enhancing changes to how they eat. And you’ll get the professional satisfaction of helping someone achieve something that enhances not only your client’s physical health, but also their self-confidence and self-esteem.
This is the first in a series of blogs I’m writing for professionals about working memory, and how understanding working memory will give you a new string to your bow in helping your clients achieve their goals.
What is Working Memory?
We have three types of memory processes – sensory memory, working memory (which is related to what used to be called short-term memory) and long-term memory.
Working Memory is the system that allows several pieces of information to be held in mind at the same time and inter-related – it’s the mental workspace that we use for dealing with what is happening right now. Working memory is an integrated set of components which guide attention, process stimuli, integrate information and store it for a short time. It is the mechanism by which episodic memories are represented, encoded and retrieved. There are several components to how it operates.
To get a sense of what working memory is in practice, notice how much of your mental capacity is taken up reading these words – probably a lot – most of your working memory is taken up. But if you started to feel nauseous, or needed to pee, or there was a loud bang, your ability to focus on reading would be reduced. And that’s because some of your working memory capacity has now been captured by something else and you won’t process what you’re reading so well. You might have to go back and start the paragraph again.
In relation to eating, working memory integrates different types of information including previous experiences, goals and current context, holds all these in mind and processes the combined information as it chooses between the apple and the cookie. If your client has developed a serious cookie habit, but wants to increase her fruit and veg intake, whether she reaches for the apple will depend on whether she’s thinking about what she intended to eat, or not really focusing and her intention has been hijacked by her established cookie habit.
Helpful and unhelpful habits
Habits are automated sequences of actions that are executed with little or no conscious thought (working memory is where conscious thinking happens). We form a habit, like cleaning our teeth in the morning, when we carry out the same sequence of actions time after time. Our brain notices the pattern and allocates it to autopilot. This means that day to day we don’t need any of our precious working memory space to get ourselves washed and dressed first thing, nor do we have to re-think our route to work every day – our brain’s autopilot does that for us. Habits, once formed, are activated by a stimulus (the sight of the toothbrush) rather than us deciding whether to clean our teeth today.
There is of course a downside to this super-efficient autopilot, and that is when we’ve developed an unhelpful habit. Whether that’s helping ourselves to seconds when we’re already full, or tucking into biscuits with coffee when we intended not to, unhelpful habits can mean we gain weight despite all our best intentions.
Working memory space is needed in order to replace an old habit with a new one
To change a habit, your client’s automated sequence of actions (switch kettle on/ notice biscuits/ reach for biscuit/ eat and repeat) has to be re-sequenced. A new action sequence has to be established, by bringing that old sequence into conscious awareness and your client using his/her working memory to create a new behavioural sequence (that is, a habit). And s/he needs to do this repeatedly until that new habit has become established. I have a whole chapter on this (Chapter 3, “The Psychology of Eating and Appetite”) on this in my book “How to Retrain Your Appetite”.
Our Working Memory capacity is limited
What this means in practice is that changing established habits takes effort, and it requires that your client focuses on the change s/he is trying to make until s/he has established a new habit. Focusing on changing a habit uses his/her working memory. The effort involved means that it is wise to focus on making one habit change at a time, rather than several. Most diets require people to overhaul how they eat overnight, which in my view sets most of us up to fail, because of the amount of mental workspace that involves.
Sometimes though, even making one eating habit change isn’t realistic, and that is when your client’s working memory is already overloaded.
If your client’s working memory is already full, they’ll struggle to create the new habit
If your client has something major going on in their life, which is emotionally upsetting or disturbing, that issue is likely to hijack their working memory from time to time, until it is resolved. It will compete for working memory capacity, and when the competition is between major-life-issue and trying to change an established eating habit, the bigger issue is likely to triumph. And as we’ve seen, if your client hasn’t got any working memory space free to re-sequence an established habit, their brain will just do the old habitual thing.
All too often people attempt to lose weight when they have something major going on in their lives which de-rails their ability to keep the habit they are trying to change at the front of their mind, like my client Claire.
After a number of failed diets Claire was keen to follow my approach to losing weight by making one stepwise change to her eating habits at a time. The size of her evening meal was the first change she wanted to attempt, but it was clear that she had major conflict in her extended family which frequently overwhelmed both her and her husband. We agreed that she would experiment with making the change to see how she got on. After a few weeks she was disappointed to report back that she had been able to eat a smaller evening meal each night until a serious incident involving a family member threw her off track and she had returned to her old eating pattern. We then agreed to keep in touch but to wait until the situation improved. After a few months the family situation had significantly changed and she returned to focusing on eating a smaller evening meal. Within 2 months she had lost half a stone and gained considerable self-confidence and is now working on the next half-stone.
How you can use awareness of working memory to plan your work with your client
First steps to think about are the bigger picture and then the smaller detail.
1. The bigger picture: is this the right time for your client to embark on trying to lose weight? In other words, do they have enough mental bandwidth at the moment to focus on eating habit change? The way to check this out is simply to ask if they have a lot going on at the moment, or big issues playing on their mind. If life is generally smooth and they feel confident about making changes, great. If they’re not sure, then you could do what Claire and I did and see how things go, or you could even suggest waiting until things are less fraught before trying to make changes. Helping people understand that we each have only limited mental bandwidth can be really helpful in removing feelings of failure or shame from unsuccessful attempts at weight loss.
2. The smaller detail of changing an unhelpful habit When they are ready to begin, to change a habit your client will need to work out what the new sequence will be, step by step. They’ll need to keep repeating the new sequence until it becomes a habit, at which point it won’t need any more working memory space because it will have become automatic. Working out the new sequence is not rocket science, but following it will take conscious effort to begin with. Take the example of stopping a biscuits-with-coffee habit. Get your client to think about what the new habit will look like – they might want to replace the biscuits with something else (reading a magazine or eating a favourite piece of fruit). Help them think about how to make it easy to do the new thing – do they need a post-it note on the kettle? Should they keep the biscuit tin out of sight? Where should they put the fruit or magazine so it jogs their memory? What about buying a special new coffee cup to celebrate the new habit?
In future articles on working memory I’ll look at what’s helpful to have in working memory, and what’s unhelpful. And I’ll give you some tips on how to help your clients use these insights to help them change how they eat.
If you want to learn more about the fascinating area of the psychology of how to change unhelpful eating habits, including how to overcome mental blocks such as lack of willpower and lack of motivation, sign up for my next 2-day “Psychology of Weight Loss” workshop for professionals. This will on 2nd to 3rd July 2020 and will be online because of the ongoing uncertainty about coronavirus.
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