The Anatomy of an “I can’t believe I just did that” Moment


So you got up this morning, exercised, had a boiled egg, grapefruit and yogurt for breakfast and got to work feeling like a champ.  Then the “sales rep” showed up with that box of donuts and left them on the break-room table – your favorite kind to boot.

You walked past those sinful delights at least 3 times, seeing others imbibing.  All the while you told yourself “No, I already had breakfast and I packed my lunch.”  On the 4th trip by, when there were only a couple left, you hesitated…and that “was all she wrote.”  It wasn’t until you were walking away, licking your fingers, that the totality of the event really sank in: “I can’t believe I just did that.”

Sometimes it seems like an almost surreal, “out-of-body” experience doesn’t it?  I am consciously aware of what I am doing (I haven’t blacked out), I have full physical control of my body and I know that I am both “doing the thing I want to do” and “doing the thing I was saying I wouldn’t do” -  at the same time.  It is if something has momentarily taken over and I am operating in a mental “blind-fold” for just long enough to devour the donut.  Then, just as suddenly, I gain the full awareness that I have just done the very thing I said to myself I wouldn’t do, …again.

How did that just happen??

Really it is no mystery at all.  From the moment I became consciously aware of “donuts in the break room” my brain was “off and running.”  Unbeknownst to me, my brain was evaluating the situation and arriving at the same decision it has arrived at thousands of times before: eat the donut.

In the subconscious recesses of my brain the decision to eat the donut had, literally, already been made.  I was simply able to override the decision for a brief period of time (but it was only a matter of time) until the real “heavy” (my subconscious) calmly took over and simply made it happen. 

Even before I became fully aware of the desire to eat the donut, my brain had responded to the stimuli and run a search looking for any information that would inform a final decision here.  Unfortunately, if found plenty that supported eating the donut.

Think about all of the beliefs and thoughts that support eating that donut:

“It’s free…I can make up for it later…They are my favorite…I am not going to win beauty pageant any time soon..Llife is too short to pass on the little pleasures…” – just to name a few.

Think about all of the times I have made this, or a similar, decision in my life.  Information from all of those previously recorded evaluations and outcomes is also being called into play here.  Each time I have dealt with this type of decision in the past, I have basically utilized the same neural pathway and lit up the same synaptic junctions.  Each time I have done so, I have reinforced the pathway.  Literally, I have built addition strands of neural material, called dendrites, that have in turn built new supportive connections with respective axon terminals that have accumulated over time and collectively commandeered an arsenal of neural “power” that drives the decision to eat the donut.

As soon as I saw the donuts and became aware that they were “free for the taking” my brain started this whole decision-making process, without bothering to check with my conscious brain to see that I had different plans for the day.  To make matters even worse, my subconscious brain even took the liberty of prepping my body to receive the donut.  Had I been paying closer attention, I would have noticed that my brain had already turned on the salivary glands and my mouth was watering, readying it’s self to dissolve and taste the blast of sweet, creamy frosting.  Had I been paying closer attention, I might have noticed that my heart rate and breathing increased, ever so slightly (but measurably) in anticipation of eating the donut.  What I would have been able to physically feel was the increase in dopamine that was occurring in my brain.  That’s right, the pleasure centers of my brain were already primed and ready to receive the burst of pleasure the donut was ready to deliver.  I was a “goner” before I even picked up the donut.

Nothing mysterious here, just the brain doing its thing!

Beating the subconscious is purely a numbers thing.  We have to understand that each time we think our way through something, using available information already in the brain, we are laying down increasing amounts of neural “footprints” in the form of new synaptic connections.  These connections are virtually permanent electrochemical memories that provide guidance and direction to all future behavior.  We can consciously “think” our way to a different behavior (in this case, passing up the donuts altogether) for a period of time.  I call this temporary cognitive over-ride.  It takes a lot of energy and concentration to engage the cognitive override and force an “atypical” behavior, but it can be done – temporarily.  It does not become a permanent “default” behavior until enough synapses are formed to support the new neural pathway that supports the decision to not eat a donut. 

The grand illusion is that somehow the new neural connections carry more weight.  Sorry, a synapse is a synapse.  They have to be formed one thought at a time, just as the old pathway was formed.  The fact that we can engage a temporary over-ride supports as false idea that somehow we can cheat the laws of physics and give our new desired thoughts a “higher power of value” that somehow “trumps” the old default.  It is just simply not possible – period.  Our brains, like everything else, are governed by the laws of physics.

Now that my sound bleak, but there is some good news.  Synaptic connections form and multiply at a natural rate in normal human experience.  In other words, being faced with the decision to eat a donut, or something similar, doesn’t occur at every waking moment of every day.  Those synaptic connections, which again multiply with repeated use, are only being formed at the rate one normally experiences such situations in life.  Although we cannot produce “super-synapses” that carry more weight, we can increase the sheer number at a rate that is much faster than the rate at which they might normally occur in nature.

If this is still all Greek to you, then maybe it will help to break it down into synaptic units.  Let’s just suppose that in your lifetime you have been faced with the decision to eat “something you hadn’t planned on eating” between meals perhaps 10,000 times (actually not mathematically unreasonable at all for most adults).  On the vast majority of occasions, you have likely eaten the snack and thought nothing of it.  Therefore we will arbitrarily (for simplicity’s sake) assign a number of 10,000 synaptic units that support this decision.  A conscious decision to change this usual result must begin with a single synaptic imprint that supports the new behavior and build from there.  As we consciously think the new thoughts and make the desired decisions, we begin to multiply the number of “synaptic connections” that support an arrival at the new behavior (of simply passing on the donut.)

Think about some supportive thinking for this new target behavior:

“I will eat again when I am scheduled to eat…Free maybe, but not at a cost…I realize that my body has already kicked the normal response into high gear, I must hold on and let that run its course (salivation, dopamine, etc.…”

As we continue “manually” firing the new neurons, we continue building synaptic units.  Fortunately, we don’t have to wait until being faced with the situation to build synaptic connections.  Simply thinking our way through our response to the event provides the same stimulus for synaptic activity as if we had in fact experienced the event.  Furthermore, each time we successfully avoid the previous neural pathway (the one that resulted in eating the donut) we also benefit from the effects of atrophy of that pathway.  Just like muscle tissue will atrophy when a body builder ceases to use the muscle, neural pathways and synaptic connections will tend to atrophy from disuse.  No one really can say for sure how quickly this occurs, but we know that it does.

At some point along the way, we will reach what I call “critical mass” in regards to the new neural pathway that supports our new desired behavior.   This is the point at which “synaptic units” supporting both behaviors (eating the donut and passing on the donut) are roughly equal.  Now, when faced with the decision, it could go either way.  Mathematically, we have reached a point where the likelihood is 50/50.  Moving beyond that point of critical mass is the point at which a new maintained behavior has really turned the corner and become the default pathway.  It could be said at this point that the new behavior is now the preferred outcome of our subconscious thinking and has a high likelihood of being maintained permanently.

Nobody likes to hear the 10,000 unit analogy, because it sounds daunting, but unless we know the truth, we are likely to get a false sense of security way to early in the game.  This is exactly what happens for most folks who lose some weight and regain it all back again.  They have in fact built some synaptic networks that support behaviors leading to eating less, but the relatively larger subconscious body of information is still leading the numbers by a long shot.  Essentially, they think they have it whipped, but in reality the new pathway is a dwarf by comparison and really stands no chance at all.

This is mostly due to the fact that in most such cases there was not a lot of effort, if any, put into constructing this new belief system.  The big effort was put into changing behaviors, which left the old subconscious belief system largely intact.  Once the cognitive over ride came to an end, which it does for all of us at some point, the subconscious simply took back over with very little in its way.

And that, my friends, is the major weakness with most approaches.  They do not directly attack the belief systems that are at the very core.  Instead they target the behaviors, or maybe conscious thought, which leaves the belief system “large and in charge.”

All Rights Reserved.  Copyright: November 2008.  Take Charge Counseling and Consulting. 

Author: Miles Nitz, MS, LMFT