Minding Pavlov

We all know about Pavlov, yes? The dude with the drooly dogs.droolingdog

So, really, what happened was this: In the late 1890’s Pavlov was researching digestion and so he had a bunch of dogs and he was measuring their saliva to see how much they produced and at what point in eating. The dogs were doing something weird though. They would start producing saliva before they were fed. Weird.

Pavlov noticed that and said to himself, “Hm.” Here I imagine that he scratched his beard thoughtfully, because that is the gesture that accompanies discovery, “Perhaps they are only smelling the food.”

So, he sent in the lab technician who was feeding the dogs without any food for them. They still salivated.

Being a scientist, he said, “A-ha! Something strange is happening. We will investigate it in excruciating detail and build a life’s work around it.”

The rest is history involving drooling dogs and ringing bells.

Though his work Pavlov became the father of a school of psychology known as behaviorism, which holds that all behaviors are a response to stimuli that are reinforced by a reward. So, in practice, the pattern reduces to: Stimulus -> Response -> Reward. Which eventually will reduce to Stimulus -> Response in the anticipation of the reward.

Why do I care about a dude with a drooling dog?

Because I do things. Some of them are healthy; some of them are  not healthy, and some of them are totally inexplicable.

See, at the advice of a doctor, I’ve been investigating mindfulness meditation. The basic idea here is to let go of other thoughts and just really pay attention to just what is. Let go of the five trillion things that are stressing you out and just pay attention to exactly how your body feels in this second. You might be surprised what you uncover. Sitting here for a few seconds, listening to my body, it is telling me that I am slightly sore from yesterday’s work-out, I am stiff with tension because I’ve been pulled away from what I want to do (write this post) about a dozen times, and very slightly hungry.   So, with that in mind, I consciously relax my body, and think about what I might have to eat. And breath. There is a lot of breathing. And focusing on breathing.

Most of us rarely really breathe. Especially those of us with young, high intensity children. If you breathe they will ask you for something, so you hold your breath. Don’t, they ask you for things anyway.

Part of this mindfulness though, has been paying attention. To the food that I eat and how I feel when I eat it. To the things that I do and how I feel doing them. To my motivations. To my exhaustion.  To tension in my shoulders and back and jaw. To my habits and responses.

It was at that point in my mindfulness that I remembered Pavlov.

Mindfulness has been allowing me to pay attention and notice (without judgement against myself) my responses.

For instance, I frequently overeat.

Paying attention to the texture of the food, it’s colors, flavors and sensations has led me to pay attention to my body’s sensation of fullness. I noticed something. I frequently overeat. My body will begin to tell me it is full about half way through my average portion. Half-way. That means that I’m eating more than twice as much as I should.

After paying attention for a week, I noticed that I usually do this at dinner.  Stranger still, I wasn’t really enjoying the extra food. I didn’t really want to feel that full and, despite the fact that I cook delicious food, once my appetite was sated, I didn’t really like the taste enough to continue eating. So, why was I still eating?

Dinner is when all of the stress of the day has culminated. I’ve excercised willpower and self-control and patience all day. I am at my low ebb. It is also the witching hour. Fiona is at her lowest, her neediest, her most difficult. She is at this point:

And, the one exception I make to taking care of the dishes, and the bath, and the stories, and the everything, is that during dinner I get to sit and eat.  By paying attention, being mindful, I realized that I wasn’t eating because I want food. I was eating because I wanted to sit and not meet the needs and expectations of anyone other than myself.

Ah-ha! This is why I care about drooling dogs. I had a conditioned response.

Stimulus: Long stressful day.

Response: Overeat at dinner.

Reward: Longer patch of time where I could be still and not hold myself accountable to other people.

Now that I know I can begin to change my conditioning. What if I let myself have that extra time without the extra food? What if I give myself a quiet half-hour earlier in the day? What things can I do to break that cycle?

I’m beginning to pay attention to my conditioning. I’m minding Pavlov.


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