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The Myth of Willpower

Willpower is a myth.

Well, okay, that’s an exaggeration. Willpower does exist but not in the quantities that most people think. It is a finite resource, and most people tend to believe that it’s infinite. How do you go about losing weight? The formula is pretty simple: eat less and exercise more. Well… easier said than done. You may want to lose weight, but your brain is still the brain of a spear-wielding, fruit-picking, primitive hunter-gatherer, and as far as it’s concerned, the fact that you’re eating today does not mean that you will be able to eat tomorrow.

When you start losing weight, your brain often goes into “starvation mode,” and most of us are well aware of what that means: headaches, fatigue, weakness, cramps. Most human beings will go to great lengths to avoid pain, and though we may consciously say to ourselves, “I just have to endure. I can do this,” sooner or later we break down and give in.

Sandra Aamodt is a neuroscientist who has researched this phenomenon; she has discovered that “hunger and energy use are controlled by the brain, mostly without your awareness.” Your body has what she calls a set point, which is probably what you weigh right now, and when you drop more than ten to fifteen pounds below that set point, your body literally burns less energy, slows down your metabolism and pumps you full of hunger-inducing hormones. You can try to fight your body, but what most people who haven’t struggled with weight loss don’t understand is that it’s not a single battle; it’s a constant grueling war that lasts forever.

I’m not here to talk about dieting – it’s just a convenient example – and if you think this sounds bleak, Aamodt’s research also reveals that regular exercise, a healthy diet and minimal alcohol intake are great equalizers. Do those things, and your risk of heart disease and other health problems plummets no matter how much you weigh.

As human beings, we’re often prone to an egocentric bias. Far too many people live with the mistaken belief that their way of thinking, feeling and behaving is the default state for the rest of humanity. Those who don’t conform to what they perceive as “natural” are labeled deviant.

Homophobes believe that everyone is naturally straight, and therefore gay, lesbian and bisexual people are choosing to go against their own natural impulses. Usually in some petty act of rebellion.

Too many thin people make the mistake of believing that all human bodies function in the same way theirs do. To them, people who can’t lose weight are just lazy and not the victims of a metabolism that actively works to undermine their efforts.

Morning people often make the mistake of assuming that everyone is, at heart, a morning person. Night Owls are simply irresponsible. Too much partying and not enough discipline: that’s why they can’t get out of bed in the morning. It never occurs to these people that Night Owls might have a different body chemistry, one that compels them to wakefulness in the wee hours.

As an Owl, I lived with the stigma of being “undisciplined” for years. Many people assumed that I chose to be awake past midnight, that I simply refused to conform to what society deemed normal. The truth is that most people have very little control over when they fall asleep. Your internal body clock is, for the most part, regulated by genetics. (Other factors include things like age and geographic location – most of which is simply beyond your control).

In fact, Night Owls have an entirely different brain structure from Morning Larks.

Not only do many early risers see Owls as deviant, it never occurs to them that there might be advantages to being the kind of person who keeps working long into the night. While it’s true that Larks generally have a more cheerful disposition – Owls are at a higher risk for depression – it’s also true that Owls tend to be more creative.

And more productive.

Perhaps we should re-evaluate those stigmas.

The common thread here is that those who label others as “deviant” have the luxury of believing that such deviance is voluntary. Heterosexuals don’t have to think much about sexuality; natural athletes don’t have to agonize over every french fry, and morning people rarely have to ponder circadian rhythms. This is called privilege.

I think we can do better.

Why not adopt a policy of giving those who are different from us the benefit of the doubt? When so many aspects of our lives are completely beyond our control, doesn’t it make sense to make society as inclusive as possible?  I think people would be much healthier and happier if we allowed them to follow their own natural inclinations, rather than forcing them to conform to what we consider “normal.” Obviously I’m not talking about inclinations that involve causing harm to other people – there are limits, and rightly so – but I’m starting to see a pattern. Every time some human behaviour gets labeled “unnatural,” every time people swear up and down that the deviant choose to be the way they are, science comes along and proves them wrong.

Hopefully we’ll remember this the next time we feel the urge to start waggling our fingers.


Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.

Now available on Kindle


And Kobo


It’s had some great reviews!



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