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Emotional Energy is More Real Thank You Might Think

February 28, 2012 6 comments

Daniel Kahneman

It turns out that when you’re feeling emotionally or mentally “drained,” you’re more right on with your wording than you know.  You are actually losing real energy, in the form of blood glucose stored (in finite quantities) in the brain. Now, cutting-edge research gives us insight as to how we can grow our stores of mental energy.

In his  book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman tells the following story about eight judges in Israel:

A disturbing demonstration…was recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The unwitting participants in the study were eight parole judges in Israel. They spend entire days reviewing applications for parole. The cases are presented in random order, and the judges spend little time on each one, an average of 6 minutes. (The default decision is denial of parole; only 35% of requests are approved. The exact time of each decision is recorded, and the times of the judges’ three food breaks–morning break, lunch, and afternoon break–during the day are recorded as well.)

The authors of the study plotted the proportion of approved requests against the time since the last food break. The proportion spikes after each meal, when about 65% of requests are granted. During the two hours or so until the judges’ next feeding, the approval rate drops steadily, to about zero just before the meal. As you might expect, this is an unwelcome result and the authors carefully checked many alternative explanations.

It’s no surprise that we get cranky when we haven’t eaten, but it is surprising and slightly alarming that judgments we assume to be wise and rational correlate with meal times.

ExhaustionThe phenomenon is called “ego depletion,” and its implications go beyond simple changes in mood. Any brain activity that takes mental effort, like concentration, willpower, sympathy, and deliberate thought, all drain large amounts of energy from the same glucose stores. Once those store are depleted, we are less capable of mental effort and we fall back on our default, intuitive systems. These systems do not have the ability to filter or exert willpower, causing our behavior to fundamentally change.

We become irritable, easily distracted, capable of less self-control, unmindful of what we say, more likely to succumb to temptation, and show low endurance. Sound familiar? To the brain, being depleted is similar to being drunk. Read more…

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