Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Judith Beck: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person

(Brain Fit­ness doesn’t require the use of expen­sive equip­ment. Your brain is enough. Today, as part of our research for The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness, we are hon­ored to inter­view Dr. Judith Beck on how cog­ni­tive tech­niques can be applied to improve our health and our lives. The lat­est appli­ca­tion? Los­ing weight.)Judith Beck, Cognitive Therapy

Dr. Judith Beck is the Direc­tor of the Beck Insti­tute for Cog­ni­tive Ther­a­py and Research, Clin­i­cal Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­o­gy in Psy­chi­a­try at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, and author of Cog­ni­tive Ther­a­py: Basics and Beyond. Her most recent book is The Beck Diet Solu­tion: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Per­son.

Dr. Beck, thanks for your time. What does the Beck Insti­tute do?

We have 3 main activ­i­ties. One, we train prac­ti­tion­ers and researchers through a vari­ety of train­ing pro­grams. Two, we pro­vide clin­i­cal care. Three, we are involved in research on cog­ni­tive ther­a­py.

Please explain cog­ni­tive ther­a­py in a few sen­tences

Cog­ni­tive ther­a­py, as devel­oped by my father Aaron Beck, is a com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem of psy­chother­a­py, based on the idea that the way peo­ple per­ceive their expe­ri­ence influ­ences their emo­tion­al, behav­ioral, and phys­i­o­log­i­cal respons­es. Part of what we do is to help peo­ple solve the prob­lems they are fac­ing today. We also teach them cog­ni­tive and behav­ioral skills to mod­i­fy their dys­func­tion­al think­ing and actions.

I under­stand that cog­ni­tive ther­a­py has been test­ed for many years in a vari­ety of clin­i­cal appli­ca­tions. What moti­vat­ed you to bring those tech­niques to the weight-loss field by writ­ing The Beck Diet Solu­tion?

Since the begin­ning, I have pri­mar­i­ly treat­ed psy­chi­atric out­pa­tients with a vari­ety of diag­noses, espe­cial­ly depres­sion and anx­i­ety. Some patients expressed weight loss as a sec­ondary goal in treat­ment. I found that many of the same cog­ni­tive and behav­ioral tech­niques that helped them over­come their oth­er prob­lems could also help them to lose weight‚ and to keep it off.

I became par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the prob­lem of over­weight and was able to iden­ti­fy spe­cif­ic mind­sets or cog­ni­tions about food, eat­ing, hunger, crav­ing, per­fec­tion­ism, help­less­ness, self-image, unfair­ness, depri­va­tion, and oth­ers, that need­ed to be tar­get­ed to help them reach their goal.

What research results back your find­ing that those tech­niques help?

Prob­a­bly the best pub­lished study so far is the ran­dom­ized con­trolled study by Karolin­s­ka Insti­tute‚¬ Stahre and Hal­strom (2005, ref­er­ence below). The results were strik­ing: near­ly all 65 patients com­plet­ed the pro­gram and this short-term inter­ven­tion (10-week, 30-hours) showed sig­nif­i­cant long-term weight reduc­tion, even larg­er (when com­pared to the 40 indi­vid­u­als in the con­trol group) after 18 months than right after the 10-weeks pro­gram.

That sounds impres­sive. Can you explain what makes this approach so effec­tive?

A unique fea­ture is that the book doesn’t‚- offer a diet but does pro­vide tools to devel­op the mind­set that is required for sus­tain­able suc­cess, for mod­i­fy­ing sab­o­tag­ing thoughts and behav­iors that typ­i­cal­ly fol­low people‚¬its  ini­tial good inten­tions. I help dieters acquire new skills. We have sold over 70,000 books so far, and are plan­ning to release a com­pan­ion work­book this month to fur­ther help read­ers imple­ment the 6-week pro­gram and track progress.

So, in a sense, we could say that your book is com­ple­men­tary to all oth­er diet books.

Exactly‚¬it will help read­ers at set­ting and reach­ing their long-term goals, assum­ing that the diet is healthy, nutri­tious, and well-bal­anced.

The main mes­sage of cog­ni­tive ther­a­py over­all, and its appli­ca­tion in the diet world, is straight-for­ward: prob­lems los­ing weight are not one‚¬ fault. Prob­lems sim­ply reflect lack of skills–skills that can be acquired and mas­tered through prac­tice. Dieters who read the book or work­book learn a new cog­ni­tive or behav­ioral skill every day for six weeks. They prac­tice some skills just once; they auto­mat­i­cal­ly incor­po­rate oth­ers for their life­time.

What are the cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al skills and habits that dieters need to train, and where your book helps?

Great ques­tion. That is exact­ly my goal: to show how every­one can learn some crit­i­cal skills. The key ones are:

1) How to moti­vate one­self. The first task that dieters do is to write a list of the 15 of 20 rea­sons why they want to lose weight and read that list every sin­gle day.

2) Plan in advance and self-mon­i­tor behav­ior. A typ­i­cal rea­son for diet fail­ure is a strong pref­er­ence for spon­tane­ity. I ask peo­ple to pre­pare a plan and then I teach them the skills to stick to it.

3) Over­come sab­o­tag­ing thoughts. Dieters have hun­dreds and hun­dreds of thoughts that lead them to engage in unhelp­ful eat­ing behav­ior. I have dieters read cards that remind them of key points, e.g., that it isn’t¬ worth the few moments of plea­sure they all get from eat­ing some­thing they hadn’t planned and that they’ll feel bad­ly after­wards; that they can’t eat what­ev­er they want, when­ev­er they want, in what­ev­er quan­ti­ty they want, and still be thin­ner; that the scale is not sup­posed to go down every sin­gle day; that they deserve cred­it for each help­ful eat­ing behav­ior they engage in, to name just a few.

4) Tol­er­ate hunger and crav­ing. Over­weight peo­ple often con­fuse the two. You expe­ri­ence hunger when your stom­ach feels emp­ty. Crav­ing is an urge to eat, usu­al­ly expe­ri­enced in the mouth or throat, even if your stom­ach is full.

When do peo­ple expe­ri­ence crav­ings?

Trig­gers can be envi­ron­men­tal (see­ing or smelling food), bio­log­i­cal (hor­mon­al changes), social (being with oth­ers who are eat­ing), men­tal (think­ing about or imag­in­ing tempt­ing food), or emo­tion­al (want­i­ng to soothe your­self when you are upset). The trig­ger itself is less impor­tant than what you do about it. Dieters need to learn exact­ly what to say to them­selves and what to do when they have crav­ings so they can wait until their next planned meal or snack.

How can peo­ple learn that they don’t have to eat in response to hunger or crav­ing?

I ask dieters, once they get med­ical clear­ance, to skip lunch one day, not eat­ing between break­fast and din­ner. Just doing this exer­cise once proves to dieters that hunger is nev­er an emer­gency, that it is tol­er­a­ble, that it doesn’t keep get­ting worse, but instead, comes and goes, and that they don’t need to “fix” their usu­al­ly mild dis­com­fort by eat­ing. It helps them lose their fear of hunger. They also learn alter­na­tive actions to help them change their focus of atten­tion. Feel hun­gry? Well, try call­ing a friend, tak­ing a walk, play­ing a com­put­er game, doing some email, read­ing a diet book, surf­ing the net, brush­ing your teeth, doing a puz­zle. My ulti­mate goal is to train the dieter to resist temp­ta­tions by firm­ly say­ing “No choice”, to them­selves, then nat­u­ral­ly turn­ing their atten­tion back to what they had been doing or engag­ing in what­ev­er activ­i­ty comes next.

You said ear­li­er that some crav­ings fol­low an emo­tion­al reac­tion to stress­ful sit­u­a­tions. Can you elab­o­rate on that, and explain how cog­ni­tive tech­niques help?

In the short term, the most effec­tive way is to iden­ti­fy the prob­lem and try to solve it. If there is noth­ing you can do at the moment, call a friend, do deep breath­ing or relax­ation exer­cis­es, take a walk to clear your mind, or dis­tract your­self in anoth­er way. Read a card that reminds you that you all cer­tain­ly not be able to lose weight or keep it off if you con­stant­ly turn to food to com­fort your­self when you are upset. Peo­ple with­out weight prob­lems gen­er­al­ly don’t turn to food when they are upset. Dieters can learn to do oth­er things, too.

And in the long term, I encour­age peo­ple to exam­ine and change their under­ly­ing beliefs and inter­nal rules. Many peo­ple, for exam­ple, want to do every­thing (and expect oth­ers to do every­thing) in a per­fect way 100% of the time, and that is sim­ply impos­si­ble. This kind of think­ing leads to stress.

The title of the book includes a  train your brain  promise. Can you tell us a bit about the grow­ing lit­er­a­ture that ana­lyzes the neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal impact of cog­ni­tive ther­a­py?

AmygdalaYes, that is a very excit­ing area. For years, we could only mea­sure the impact of cog­ni­tive ther­a­py based on psy­cho­log­i­cal assess­ments. Today, thanks to fMRI and oth­er neu­roimag­ing tech­niques, we are start­ing to under­stand the impact our actions can have on spe­cif­ic parts of the brain.

For exam­ple, take spi­der pho­bia. In a 2003 paper (Note: ref­er­ence below)  sci­en­tists observed how, pri­or to the ther­a­py, the fear induced by view­ing film clips depict­ing spi­ders was cor­re­lat­ed with sig­nif­i­cant aAmygdala fMRIacti­va­tion of spe­cif­ic brain areas, like the amyg­dala (Edi­tor note: pics added for illus­tra­tion. On the left, the yel­low cir­cle shows the loca­tion of the amyg­dala. On the right, the red col­or indi­cates the lev­el of acti­va­tion of the amyg­dala, the “fear cen­ter of the brain”). After the inter­ven­tion was com­plete (one three-hour group ses­sion per week, for four weeks), view­ing the same spi­der films did not pro­voke acti­va­tion of those areas. Those indi­vid­u­als were able to “train their brains and man­aged to reduce the brain response that typ­i­cal­ly trig­gers auto­mat­ic stress respons­es. And we are talk­ing about adults.

Dr. Beck, that is exact­ly what we find most excit­ing about this emerg­ing field of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty: the aware­ness that we can improve our lives by refin­ing, “train­ing” our brains, and the grow­ing research behind a num­ber of tools such as cog­ni­tive ther­a­py. Thanks a lot for shar­ing your thoughts with us.

My plea­sure.


Research Papers men­tioned

Stahre L, Hll­strm T. (2005). “A short-term cog­ni­tive group treat­ment pro­gram gives sub­stan­tial weight reduc­tion up to 18 months from the end of treat­ment. A ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­al” Eat­ing and Weight Dis­or­ders. 2005 Mar;10(1):51–8.

Paque­tte, V., Levesque, J., Men­sour, B., Ler­oux, J. M., Beau­doin, G., Bour­gouin, P., et al. (2003). Effects of cog­ni­tive-behav­ioral ther­a­py on the neur­al cor­re­lates of spi­der pho­bia. Neu­roim­age, 18, 401–409.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

46 Responses

  1. Sarah Connar says:

    Train your brain to think like a thin per­son”
    That is a hor­ri­bly dis­crim­i­nate head­line, you make it seem like there is a bio­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence in the men­tal­i­ty or cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties between a thin and obese indi­vid­ual. While there are some bio­log­i­cal traits that lead to obe­si­ty , I don’t think that obe­si­ty can be so read­i­ly trained into some sort of mind­set to becom­ing thin.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Dear Sarah: there seems to be some com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lem. That is the title of the real book, and it reflects the key point of the book and the ben­e­fits of cog­ni­tive ther­a­py: we can train our mind­sets (which have a neu­ro­log­i­cal base, so in prac­tice we can train our brains) to adopt good atti­tudes, beliefs and skills that will help us not only lose weight but be able to main­tain a healthy, fit body over the long term, beyond “quick fix­es”. This is not innate (what I guess you call bio­log­i­cal). I hope this helps.

  3. john says:

    Sarah Con­nar:

    It’s a MENTALITY dif­fer­ence cre­at­ed by day to day habits that man­i­fest into phys­i­cal traits. This is a per­fect exam­ple of teach­ing your brain the dif­fer­ence between ‘want’ and ‘need’ which is very often the rea­son why obese peo­ple often stay obese, why com­pul­sive shop­pers can’t break the habit, etc.

  4. CBT fan says:

    hey, thx for doing the good inter­view with Judith Beck. I do a reg­u­lar Google blog search on that sub­ject, as I am using the book myself, and have dropped close to 40 lbs in about 3 months, and am almost done with the weight-loss process, and now have to use the cog­ni­tive-behav­ioral tools to make sure I don’t back­slide.

    I hap­pened to have a lot of expe­ri­ence with CBT, so I was able to apply the book quite quick­ly. For me, the most impor­tant thing was learn­ing to Tol­er­ate Dis­com­fort. That is, learn­ing to say NO to myself for cer­tain Crav­ings, and not act on them, and to just observe the “painful emo­tions” increase and then extin­quish them­selves. Most of us will give into Crav­ings as we think NOT giv­ing into them will be “too painful”. If we real­ly fol­low through on it, we find its not that bad, and the Crav­ing will extin­guish itself, some­thing like Clas­si­cal con­di­tion­ing, but due to cog­ni­tive eval­u­a­tions like…“hey, I didn’t eat it, and its wasn’t that bad”.
    There is some great stuff in that book, and CBT is an amaz­ing set of cog­ni­tive-emo­tive-behav­ioral tools…

    and the best thing about it, is that its not sta­t­ic, and its always being test­ed and fal­si­fied, so it can improve, this is because Dr. Aaron Beck has used the sci­en­tif­ic method to devel­op CBT.

  5. CBT fan says:

    whoops, I for­got to men­tion there is an online group of folks doing the Beck Diet Solu­tion at Peer­train­er, you can join here for free if you are work­ing through the book. There are about 90 mem­bers…

  6. Alvaro says:

    John: thank you for that great com­ment.

    CBT fan: thanks for shar­ing your first-hand per­spec­tive. And thanks for the offer, but I con­fess I am not on any diet pro­gram myself, my main inter­est is to under­stand how cog­ni­tive tech­niques can be used to devel­op men­tal skills that help us accom­plish our goals, and Dr. Beck’s great work has been open­ing new ground. Good luck with your pro­gram!

  7. CBT fan says:

    hi there, yeah, my post­ing of the link would be for any­one who hap­pens to read the blog who has the book and is look­ing for a place to sound-out a bit.

    CBT is an amaz­ing set of tools. You should try to get an inter­view with the God­fa­ther him­self, Dr. Aaron Beck, and ask him some ques­tions about that, as he is a very smart guy. His book “The Inte­gra­tive Pow­er of Cog­ni­tive Ther­a­py” is tru­ly excel­lent.
    He designed many tools, like the TIC-TOC method and many oth­er ways to achieve Goals and prob­lem solv­ing.

    Also, Dr. David Burns has writ­ten a num­ber of gen­er­al books from the CBT per­spec­tive as well. He has a new book out called WHEN PANIC ATTACKS which is pure CBT, he might do an inter­view as well.

    In my view, CBT is the best “self-help” set of tech­niques out there, for dozens of rea­sons. The #1 rea­son is that they are sci­ence based, are Real­is­tic, and so far haven’t been abused and over­sold by hucksters…yet.

    Some peo­ple have said CBT sounds like “The Secret”, but the real­i­ty is that it is the oppo­site of “The Secret” as CBT is the oppo­site of MAg­i­cal Think­ing, that is a Cog­ni­tive Dis­tor­tion.

    Basi­cal­ly, CBT is lit­er­al­ly the Sci­en­tif­ic Method applied on a per­son­al lev­el. Ask Dr. Aaron Beck about that.
    That sounds sim­ple, but it is not.
    CBT is apply­ing the sci­en­tif­ic method to our own cog­ni­tions and beliefs. That is heavy stuff…

  8. Alvaro says:

    CBT fan: very good com­ments. Thank you. I will in fact be talk­ing more about some fas­ci­nat­ing CBT stud­ies.

    And, why not, I will see if Dr. Aaron Beck if avail­able for an inter­view. It would be a very stim­u­lat­ing hon­or to inter­view him.

    Will check Dr. Burns book.

  9. carlos says:

    great idea.

  10. Alvaro says:

    Thanks, Car­los. I find Dr. Beck’s work fas­ci­nat­ing.

  11. Phil says:

    CBT is great, because it is a step by step method to retrain one­self to react like some­one who is able to feel emo­tions but not be over­come by them. Overeaters must be able to reframe their emo­tions which may be behind the crav­ings to be less “dan­ger­ous”, for exam­ple, “I feel as though I am worth­less, but that is just a feel­ing or a thought, not absolute truth”, in order to tol­er­ate the dis­com­fort of expe­ri­enc­ing them. This can work for more than just eat­ing, as was men­tioned ear­li­er. I am so glad this method is get­ting more wide­spread cred­i­bil­i­ty.

  12. CBT fan says:

    You could ask Dr. Aaron Beck about the many mis­con­cep­tions about CBT, he has writ­ten about that.
    For exam­ple, many ther­a­pists even crit­i­cize CBT for how it han­dles Emo­tions.

    For exam­ple, above was men­tioned that CBT seems brain­washy, and how it relates to Emo­tion.
    But that is a tricky area.

    For exam­ple, if a per­son digs into CBT beyond the charts, one sees that CBT is about human free­dom. Look into the 10 Axioms of Cog­ni­tive Ther­a­py by Dr. Aaron Beck.

    I see CBT as the oppo­site to any type of Preach­ing, as ulti­mate­ly you are going to become your own ther­a­pist, and make up your own mind, and solved your own prob­lems, etc.

    As far as human emo­tion, that is extreme­ly tricky. The com­mon error about CBT is that it tried to negate human emo­tion, which again is the exact oppo­site of what CBT real­ly is!
    Its the old Straw Man argu­ment again.

    CBT is about feel­ing deeply, and feel­ing the entire range of human emo­tions. But it also gives a way to deal with extreme human emo­tions that screw peo­ple up.

    But as far as I know, CBT has not yet been prop­er­ly applied to enhanc­ing human per­for­mance. This will have to be done in a sci­en­tif­ic and care­ful way, as opposed to the typ­i­cal method of the self-helper pub­lish­ers of pulling things out of their pos­te­ri­or that they think will sell.

    Judith Beck’s recent book, “Cog­ni­tive Ther­a­py for Chal­leng­ing Prob­lems” is quite good, and deals a lot with Core Beliefs, which seem to be the foun­da­tion of our per­son­al­i­ties and behav­iors, emo­tions, assump­tions, rule, and even thoughts.

  13. Alvaro says:

    Phil: thanks for your great com­ment.

    CBT fan: I agree with many of your com­ments. What do you mean with “CBT has not yet been prop­er­ly applied to enhanc­ing human per­for­mance.”?

  14. Wally says:

    This is won­der­ful. Thanks for shar­ing this.

  15. Alvaro says:

    You are wel­come, Wal­ly. Let’s thank Judith for her work and time!

  16. Pat says:

    Inter­est­ing. This cog­ni­tive ther­a­py is indeed great for our brain with all its ben­e­fits.

  17. kelly says:

    Very good arti­cle and i think the 1st step to los­ing weight is your mind­set. You can’t lose weight just by think­ing like a thin per­son, but it does help to have that mind­set, as you are work­ing on your goal to get thin­ner.

  18. Alvaro says:

    Yes, Kel­ly, what I think is Judith’s main mes­sage is that it is SKILLS that mat­ter, and that we can all devel­op them.

  19. Anna4 says:

    Yes, great job. 🙂 Inter­est­ing indeed.

  20. Thanks Alvaro for bring­ing Beck’s work to the fore for dis­cus­sion.

    Two thoughts:

    The gen­er­a­tional issue here is writ large. The effi­cien­cy and suc­cess of skill based log­ic varies from work with chil­dren, teenagers and adults. Agreed?

    Sec­ond, As an adult who can look back on teenage years when ther­a­pies for obe­si­ty and eat­ing dis­or­ders focused sim­ply on the “O.C.D” or addi­tion motif, it’s great to see neu­ro­science weigh­ing in on the sub­ject.

    May I sug­gest that with respect to diet­ing, mind­set and the brain, we think about the role brain-map­ping plays in body-map­ping and body image. Behav­ior, after all, is embed­ded into a com­plex sys­tem of skills that work at the sys­temic lev­el of the body “tis­sues” — skills that enable an embod­ied sense of being at peace (or in strug­gle) with onself or the world.

  21. Mary says:

    This is so excit­ing!! I spent 10 years trapped in my home by ago­ra­pho­bia. A friend of mine, a physi­cian who was in ther­a­py, was giv­en “The Feel Good Hand­book,” which she passed on to me. What a hor­ri­ble title 🙂 But I skimmed it any­way, just so I’d have some­thing intel­li­gent I could say to my friend that would show I appre­ci­at­ed her thought­ful­ness. Ooooohma­good­ness. None of the book made sense until I looked at my beloved dog and real­ized he would be lunch in anoth­er coun­try, and only because of the way they think. I dove into that book, searched out oth­ers like it, then went look­ing for a CBT ther­a­pist that was close. He ter­mi­nat­ed ther­a­py after 6 weeks and I’d achieved my top goals, the most impor­tant being able to renew my dri­vers license (long since lost because I couldn’t renew). He said I’d made excep­tion­al progress and had gone as far as could be expect­ed. Ha!! I kept dig­ging and research­ing and work­ing, work­ing, work­ing, work­ing towards the day when I’d no longer have any bound­aries. It took a very long time, but even­tu­al­ly the “tip­ping” point was achieved. I was “nor­mal,” and then some, fly­ing 150,000 miles around the globe in just one year.

    I can’t believe I’ve been so cocky in my suc­cess that I nev­er even con­sid­ered apply­ing CBT in con­trol­ling these ever-expand­ing thighs I’ve got­ten in mid­dle age. I’ve seen this book but thought it was a touchy-feely “The Secret” of thun­der thighs.

    Excuse me while I leave skid marks on the dri­ve­way while head­ing for Barnes & Noble 🙂

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , ,

All Slidedecks & Recordings Available — click image below

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.