Dieting or writing – we still need to outwit our reptilian brains

black water snakeJust in case you’ve forgotten … There’s more than the one brain between our ears, and they’re constantly battling with each other. Successful dieting and writing requires outwitting our ancient reptilian brains.

Our writing-dieting selves like to think we’re all frontal lobe, all about visioning, reasoning, planning and problem solving. But hidden deep in the centre of the head are our reptilian brains – the amygdala associated with memory, emotion and fear, and the  hypothalamus which controls thirst, hunger, sleep and sex.

These are the hunting gathering parts of the brain that refuse to let us starve to death or to think too much before acting.  They’re why, despite dieting, we can’t lose weight.

Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt explains it all in her  TED talk, “Why your brain doesn’t want you to lose weight”. In plain English though, what she says is, we’re programmed to be a certain set weight. When we start dieting to over-ride the system, the hypothalamus thinks we starving and ramps up our appetite. It also works harder to slow our metabolism so we burn less energy. Apparently, even after keeping weight off for seven years, our brain will still want to make us gain it back.

Now, this is a woman who lost 10 lbs and is still keeping it off. So what’s the secret?

Mindful eating, listening to your body, giving yourself permission to eat what you want slowly, with no distractions,. That way, your mind feels full. The reptilian brain feels safe and happy. 

Then put the frontal cortex to work. Have it develop 4 healthy habits – eating fruit and vegetables, exercising every day, quitting cigarettes, drinking only moderately and no soft drinks!

What’s this got to do with writing?

Well… right now my reptilian brain is scared shitless, so scared it’s paralyzed. The first round edits for my novel are done and I’ve just sent them back to my editor together with the historical epilogue the publisher needed.  This novel is going to go out. What’s more, another publisher’s just bought my anthology of short stories Heart – 8 Cuts.  I am a writer, there is no doubt about it. But my reptilian brains wants to be a hunter, a gathererer, an unthinking barefoot in the kitchen baker of banana-cream pies. “Don’t you know, men don’t like clever women?” it whispers. “Keep quiet, shut up,” it hisses. “It’s dangerous, all that self revelation.”

My fingers on the key board are paralyzed. I have no words.

I give in, just a little, to that old reptile. I tell it I’ll ease off. I won’t write anything knew. Nothing significant anyway. Just so it’ll feel safe and shut up!

And then I turn to that good old frontal cortex and to my good habits – wWaking up, turning the computer on, going back to those bits and pieces I’ve been working on that need tweaking, the blog I’m committed to posting on.

I went to my poetry and started a piece. Something innocuous … Here it is, incomplete …

In the cool dry the insects play


Odalisques of mango
Avocadot ovals
Milkfruit orbs

They bask through the hot
They ripen

Under a deluge
I taste the harvest

Given by fate my golden-skinned daughter used to say
Of the mangos that fell at her feet
Along her way to school

At eighteen she took to the seas to escape the hunger
The fish have her bones now
Her fate – I hear her laugh
Mangoes do not float

The avocados are from the mountains where they sent my son
He returned wrapped in khaki green…. (more later)


And then I wrote this blog.

Has your reptilian brain ever stopped you from eating well and mindfully? Has it ever just curled up and gone to sleep, stopping you from writing?

Tell us about it here. Share a comment.

6 Responses to “Dieting or writing – we still need to outwit our reptilian brains”
  1. Yes, lizard brain is always threatening to take over and shut everything down that doesn’t lend to survival. I learned to recognize it during a really dark time in my life when I was going through a financial crisis that could have led to ruin (by the grace of God it did not.) Any time I started obsessing about where I was going to get money from, I just mentally told it “Shut up.” Sometimes I had to tell it shut up alot, but I eventually wrestled it under control. Love your take on this.

  2. Vincent says:

    Check this out, Audrey.

  3. Audrey I hear you, it must be frightening to think what next after this, yet you will keep going and never stop writing because you always have something interesting and powerful to say. Keep punching those keys and listen to the part of the brain, the creative side, the dreamer’s dream it is coming into a new era for you, there are no limits if you just write. Thanks I needed to read this today as I struggle to create third draft for picture book

    • Audrey Chin says:

      Keep trucking Kath. I’m taking the week off the sequel to Heart Bones… The reptile needs a break to feel safe. Just working on little bits of poetry for fun and reading heaps …

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