The Cortical Homunculus

Sensory Homunculus

Motor Homunculus

Remember these weird looking humans from neuro A&P class? In the 1940s Dr. Wilder Penfield used electric shocks on people and then asked where they felt the sensation. Based on his research he drew this funny homunculus, or “little man” in Latin, showing how much sensory and motor brainpower is dedicated to a body part. You can see A LOT  is dedicated to our lips, mouth and tongue!

The primitive brain rules our habit loops. So . . . . the habits that support overeating and eating calorically dense sugary food because it tastes, smells, and feels awesome it is FULLY supported by this “little man”.

This “little man” developed so we wouldn’t eat things that smell bad, feel gross, taste awful or harm us.


We now live in a modern world that doesn’t sell ugly looking, bad tasting, gross feeling, terrible smelling food. Well, maybe Spam.

The food sold now looks beautiful, smells terrific, feels wonderful and tastes marvelous to the “little man” in our brain.

It is our choice to not overeat and feed this “little man” just because he evolved this way.

These are some triggers employed by food marketing that turn on my “little man” and engage my primitive brain overeating habits:

  • The diffusing hoagie scent outside Subway stores – like a tiny whiff of crack cocaine each time I pass.
  • Hot rotisserie chicken wafting its smell by grocery store checkouts.
  • Food-tasting stations inside stores.
  • Fast food commercials on at 5 am when I am at the gym.
  • Snack food packaging emitting an audible “I’m here snacking on something sweet, sugary, salty and crunchy!” sound, announcing its presence to my nearby primitive brain.

The food industry has mastered how to stimulate our food-related sensory input! My primitive brain immediately thinks – “Go get that torso sized bag of potato chips now!”

But, I can choose to think – “Wait, What? Is this going to help me lose weight?” NO!! This thought helps me deal with the urge to buy the torso bag of potato chips until it goes away in 10-30 seconds.

I have to practice watching my “little man” having a fit until he gets tired and settles down in 10-30 seconds. I can do anything for 30 seconds, right?

Interestingly, the disease diagnosed by Penfield’s homunculus is phantom pain. Despite missing a limb the brain still feels its presence. I postulate that even though we choose to not eat unhealthy foods our brain will always remember eating them, this is why our urge to overeat unhealthy foods will never completely go away.

And this is why I need to choose again and again what I should be eating.



One of my favorite quotes is from Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, “That’s a DEALBREAKER!”

Liz referred to a dealbreaker as something that would lead to a relationship breakup. So I thought, why not use a dealbreaker to end a crappy relationship I have with food.

We can use “Dealbreakers” as a strategy for interrupting the  pleasure-seeking, stress-feeding thoughts the primitive brain habitually produces.

Brainpower or willpower is a limited commodity. It is gone by the end of the workday.

Dealbreakers are recognizable stop points for the primitive brain, which ALWAYS rules after a long, tiring or stressful day.

Dealbreakers remind me when to ask a USEFUL NO question of my primitive brain.

Dealbreakers will interrupt primitive brain thoughts that are screaming “I WANT!” and “I NEED!”

My easy to remember diet-focused Dealbreakers are:

  • 5 pound weight gain.
  • Food that gives me diarrhea or constipation. (Duh!)
  • Processed foods.
  • Dried stuff in a box or bag.
  • Eating after 7:00 pm.
  • Sugar.
  • Fast food made by random teenagers.
  • Food shopping on a fast day.

Dealbreakers, Useful No questions, and great habits are simple resources to control your primitive toddler brain.

Bring out your dealbreakers and use them consciously!


Yesterday we were talking about Fritos at work. Everyone in the OR loved Fritos. But most of us agreed that no matter how much we loved Fritos we don’t buy them.

I remember feeling frustrated and thinking, “I love Fritos but I can’t eat them!”

It felt frustrating because I was thinking, “I’m missing out on all the Fritos in life!” I felt angry, frustrated, cheated, and all the other emotions when I think I can’t have what I want when I want it!

By now I recognize this is my toddler primitive brain starting to have a tantrum.

This is how I visualize my primitive brain.

She was easy to ignore when I was in the OR because there was no opportunity to eat Fritos there.


But she came back to life as I drove home in Friday rush hour traffic. Each of the four times I passed a grocery store or Wawa she continued her tantrum screaming:

  • “It has been a long week, you deserve some Fritos!”
  • “Come on, you followed a good diet all week, you can Frito cheat this once!”
  • “This traffic is the worst, you need Frito food to make it home!”
  • “Get Fritos they will make you happy!”

I’m happy to report I did not get the Fritos. I kept answering each of her statements with, “Are Fritos healthy for me?” She answered, “NO!” but she is tenacious and kept coming up with all the other arguments that usually convinced me in the past to get the Fritos and eat them.

However, a new diet theory was also in my head during the Frito fight. New research is showing that processed foods actually make my primitive toddler brain stronger at convincing me to eat Frito type foods. Here is a quote from the Scientific American article:

“Eating large amounts of ultraprocessed foods may actually change brain circuitry in ways that increase sensitivity to food cues, adds Kent Berridge, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan. He has shown this effect in rodents. “When you give rats junk-food diets, some gain weight, but others do not. In those that became obese, their dopamine systems changed, and they became hypersensitive to food cues—they became superfocused on that one reward. They showed no more pleasure, but they did show more wanting, and that wanting led to more actions—that is, more food-seeking behavior.”

I’m not a rat but I recognize this wanting and food-seeking behavior in myself. Yep, it’s what I do every time I overeat or eat off plan or off protocol.

This little critter lives in me but it is my choice to follow her advice or not.

As you make a choice about food listen to whose advice you are following. If the choice is in the moment, easy, pleasurable, or buffers uncomfortable emotions then the toddler primitive brain is ruling.

Tell her to go sit in the corner till she settles down!

A “Useful No” Supports Our Underdog Brain

This project is about weight loss and weight maintenance.

So why do I keep writing about thinking?

Because, it is the ONLY way change happens in humans. Thinking consciously is the ONLY weight loss tool you need to plan what you will eat or not eat, buy or not buy, cook or not cook, enjoy or not enjoy, repeat or not repeat.

Tim Urban eloquently explains in A Game of Giants why it’s necessary to root for the underdog – OUR CONSCIOUS THOUGHTS:

“. . . . the Primitive Mind is just doing what it’s programmed to do—help us pass our genes on in 50,000 BC. In each case, our problems stem from the fact that we no longer live in the world we were optimized by evolution to live in. And in each case, there’s hope to make things better—because right next to the Primitive Mind in our heads is an advanced center of clarity and wisdom and independent agency. The Higher Mind may be the underdog, but he’s a fighter.”

To change our mind about what we need to do to lose and maintain our weight requires rooting for the underdog – CONSCIOUS THINKING. Support those thoughts that keep you away from unhealthy food and on plan.

Last week I explained how a USEFUL NO question gives our “Higher Mind” a chance to be involved in all the decision-making around food. A timely USEFUL NO question can prevent overeating, buying crappy food, stopping for fast food, watching food ads, reading about food and eating off plan.

I came up with some more USEFUL NO questions this week to remind me of my diet motivators: to be healthy and feel energized.

  • Is the salt/fat/sugar in this food healthy for me?  NO!
  • Is this doughnut going make me feel awesome?  NO!
  • Is it a good idea to stuff myself?  NO!
  • Have I given up on losing weight?  NO!

Use your motivators to build some USEFUL NO questions and give your “Higher Mind” a chance to negotiate with your primitive brain!





The Useful No

I read a lot.

I read guilty pleasure books at bedtime when my brain needs to shut down. These reads are interesting enough but not worth passing to others.

I read books recommended to me by my favorite people, blogs, and podcasts during the day when my brain is alive. I want to capture new information and add it to the stew that is my brain.

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss turned out to be one of these daytime books for me. The book is about how to negotiate successfully. Mr. Voss writes that if there is an “I want” in our brain or we want a “Yes” answer then there is a negotiation happening.

If “I want” to establish a new belief about food I have to negotiate for it, inside my brain.

If “I want” to change my thinking about food every time I encounter food I need to negotiate each time.

If my primitive brain wants a “Yes” to eat a giant bag of potato chips I need to negotiate with it to NOT eat them. This is a lot of negotiation because I think about food maybe 1000 times a day!

If you have been following previous posts you know the primitive brain is the first in line to make itself heard and has plenty of back-up support in our established habits!

One negotiation tactic Mr. Voss teaches is called the USEFUL NO. I wondered if a USEFUL NO and negotiation could help me lose weight. I need help during fasting periods when I am not physically hungry but my primitive brain is bugging me to eat because “it’s time!”

Here is an example of how I can negotiate with my primitive brain and not eat food when it’s not on my plan, in my protocol, or when I’m not hungry. This equation represents the negotiation between my primitive brain and my thinking brain.


“Man those chips would taste sooo good!”


“Are these chips going to help me lose weight?”   NO!

>>>>> “Wait, what? It seems like I want to eat chips just because they are there! How about instead, I drink some water or eat what I brought for lunch if I am physically hungry now?”

This thinking happens quickly! The primitive brain immediately made me feel “happy” or “excited” upon seeing the chips.

Asking the USEFUL NO question let the primitive brain remain in charge, feel safe and protected but gave enough of a pause for the thinking brain to jump in and negotiate before I start stuffing chips in my mouth!

My thinking brain countered the primitive brain with my new thoughts. If you have been practicing new thinking about food then you are also getting a “happy” or “excited” neurotransmitter cascade when your new thinking is used. This is because your new thoughts are benefiting who you want to be: a person committed to health.

If you “want” to lose weight try asking an easy to remember USEFUL NO question that will start a negotiation every time you have a food encounter.

Please don’t make the assumption the primitive brain has your best interests at heart; it’s going to go for the chips every time!

First Class

Do you have a bucket list?

I have a short one. Last week I ticked off one item – flying first class. I’ve been flying since I was three and had my first first-class experience at 60.

What do I think about first class?  Meh! It was just OK and I would spend the extra thousands a completely different way, or better yet, save them.

However, for months I did enjoy the anticipation of getting to fly first class.

I wanted the pleasure of unlimited alcohol, food, space and flight attendants that would cater to my every need while I whizzed through the air.

The reality was the alcohol was the same poor quality, just served individually instead of off a cart blocking the isle. We did get a meal on a tray with real silverware. Oddly, they gave a hot, rose-scented washcloth to clean our hands before each meal. As an infection control nurse I thought this was an excellent idea.

I didn’t sleep despite the fully reclining chair. There is the same level of noise and vibration in first class as economy. I did have fun playing with the seat controls.

All the new thrills and wonderful experiences I was anticipating didn’t pan out.

I realized most of my anticipation about first class revolved around eating and drinking in a special way, 600 mph 39,000 feet up in the air.

I had made thoughts about eating and drinking the priority as opposed to the journey itself.

I realized I needed to change this thought pattern. I changed my thoughts from food and drink to the thrill of whizzing through the air. Something I rarely get to do and have enjoyed since the age of three when they served me a stick of Wrigley’s spearmint gum and a white mug of milk. I spilled the milk on myself. Tray tables didn’t exist in 1961.

Choose how to think of experiences, whether they are past, present, or future. If food comes first into your thoughts, go past those thoughts and onto others. It is the secondary and third thoughts that will help focus the brain away from food.

I watched a great movie this weekend, East Side Sushi. I love movies about food! The movie opens with a quote “A good sushi chef can pick up his knife and go anywhere he chooses, like a samurai warrior.” (Mia Derrick)

I would like to adapt this concept to: A person can change their thoughts and go anywhere they choose, like anyone else. It is our thoughts that make our journey!


Last week I talked about how we label MISTAKES as BAD and how that impacts progress.

We also label the word FAILURE as BAD. Why?

FAILURE is defined as an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful.

  • So a failure is along the way to success.
  • If you fail you will succeed. That doesn’t sound so bad.

SUCCESS is defined as the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors.

  • So success is achieved by doing multiple actions that failed!
  • Failure sounds like it is very necessary for success.

Mistakes and failures are something we inherently fear. We see them as loss. It is a basic human attribute to avoid loss. Loss means we may feel hurt, sad, depressed, panicky, anxious, stupid, exposed, and empty. We “lose face” if we don’t accomplish something right away or the first time we try.

Our primitive brain protects our bodily status quo by avoiding loss or change in any form.

Can this be why we fear to lose our weight? Because we do. We label it weight LOSS which automatically makes it hard for us to do! Weight loss involves making a lot of changes to our status quo.

Is our extra weight keeping us safe from harm? Our primitive brain thinks so because the extra pounds are part of our status quo.

In our weight loss journey we are all making mistakes, failing, and succeeding. Enough mistakes and failure blooms. Enough failure and success is found.

Carefully looking at our mistakes and failures reveals why we didn’t succeed.

If I didn’t lose weight this week it’s because I DID NOT:

  • make a meal plan this week.
  • eat my whole food diet.
  • follow the meal plan I made today.
  • choose the healthier food option for several meals.
  • drink water.
  • step on the scale this week.
  • stop eating at my +2.

For me all these DID NOT DO mistakes will lead to a failure to lose weight. How do I know? Because when I make a meal plan, eat whole food, follow my meal plan, drink water, stop eating at +2, and monitor my weight I ALWAYS lose weight.

Happy for me I learned from my mistakes. I succeeded in losing weight even though I was on vacation. Yippy Skippy! I got a happy feeling from a loss:)

Go and find your happy loss!




Humans use language to communicate ideas. The spoken language is a bunch of LABELS we attach to make an idea clear. It is an inexact process at best. Most of the time the idea gets altered or lost when translated by another brain!

It is very interesting to me how we label something we do that doesn’t come out the way we wanted or expected as BAD. We have a word that labels this idea – MISTAKE.

Thank heavens we have dictionaries that define words down to a meaning. Around 1250 A.D. the word “error” was created in Middle English from Latin. Within 100 years “error” evolved a new word, mistake. Seems like we can’t have enough words to describe screwing up!

I looked at synonyms for mistake and they are all pretty mild: blunder, glitch, inaccuracy, lapse, miscalculation, miscue, misstep, misunderstanding, omission, absurdity, boner, boo-boo, goof, slight, slip, stumble, faux pas, misbelief, misjudgment, slipup.

I like the Old Norse definition for mistaka: To take in error. I like this because it says exactly what we do with our mistakes; we take them inside us. Mistakes become part of us instead of events that are learned from. We let them fester inside us, repeatedly reminding us of when we screwed up!

Most mistakes are a mild boo-boo we probably don’t want to repeat. Sometimes mistakes can be something we want to do again! But because our choices cause our mistakes we want to be responsible and learn from them.

We can learn from mistakes to get better. And sometimes the mistake will get us where we want to go faster!

So quit holding on to your past diet mistakes as a flag of failure. They are just something we tried that didn’t go the way we expected because we were missing knowledge, just starting to practice, listening to someone else, or weren’t thinking at all.

In our jobs as healthcare providers we feel mistakes that happen at work in our gut. If we make a mistake that affects someone else it feels BAD. But unless we go back and learn about what happened to create the mistake it will be a lost opportunity to change.

“Take in the error”, evaluate it and learn what you can. This is our responsibility. After we learn from our mistakes we are FREE to let them go, they have served their purpose! Don’t hang onto mistakes you have learned from. It is not our responsibility to keep beating ourselves over the head with past mistakes! We are all good people and are always doing the best we can with what we know at the time.

We are good parents, nurses, friends, family, and humans. And all humans make mistakes throughout their lives.

I’ve already made plenty of mistakes while trying to lose weight. I made a mistake this week and cut down my 42-hour fasting protocol to 24 hours and stopped losing weight. But I didn’t gain weight either. I learned I need the longer fasting window to get fat adapted and chew up enough of my inside fat to lose a little weight. I also learned a 24 hour fast a few times a week will help me maintain my goal weight!

Staying with my program till December will get me where I want to be. If I make a mistake it will become my direction finder and show me what does NOT work for me. The only thing left to learn along the way is what DOES work for me. And I can’t SEE that without my mistakes.

Mistakes are EXCITING if you think of them this way!

Mistakes help us move safely through undiscovered country. Mistakes keep us moving forward out of the dark cave of fear, loss, and wanting.

What mistakes are you willing to make and HOW will they help continue your weight loss?

Changing Our Fears

Remember the little mice and their cheese? Sniff, Scurry, Hem, and Haw? Sniff and Scurry kept monitoring what was going on around them and changed when life happened.  Hem and Haw thought a lot about what was going on, focusing on how it affected them. Hem and Haw listened closely to the fearful labels their brains were throwing out: Change is scary! Change isn’t Safe!

Change feels icky if we are in a fearful state of mind.

But if we are in a curious state of mind change can feel like an opportunity.

Change requires learning something new. This takes effort our brain likes to avoid. Learning leads to growth and more change. Our primitive brain is set to make us fear this cycle. It labels everything outside the safe and comfortable cave we are in as SCARY!

It is up to our thinking brain to think thoughts that will generate an emotion other than fear. This new more positive emotion will then drive our actions and we will get a different result. WE WILL CHANGE!

Instead of coming home from work feeling “icky stressed” I think about feeling “relaxed” at being away from work. Instead of covering over the icky feeling with food I choose to do relaxing things to reinforce my emotion of relaxation:

  • Sit in a nice soft chair and put my feet up,
  • take a nap,
  • wait to eat,
  • eat a healthier choice,
  • drink a glass of water,
  • watch my favorite show,
  • walk some dogs at the shelter,
  • catch up on the day with my family,
  • clean a toilet,
  • get a hot shower,

or ANYTHING other than answering my emotions with food. All the above choices are actions I take from a relaxed emotional state to reinforce my thoughts and emotions of being RELAXED.

Choose to use that huge thinking brain you have and make a choice OTHER THAN EATING FOOD! Any other choice, there are literally thousands! A different choice is better for you than the old choice, which keeps unwanted weight on your body.

Pick one opportunity to change today. You will see right away it is not scary; there is nothing to fear. And soon you will be asking yourself: “Why did I wait so long to change?”


Clean Up The Labels In Your Brain

To be efficient humans label things.

Thinking a label like “that’s BAD” or “that’s GOOD” triggers a neurological transmitter cascade and we feel an emotion.

The emotion triggers a physiological response and we move.

Our primitive brain constantly uses labels to get things done.

Labels efficiently trigger emotions and actions. ALL UNCONSCIOUSLY!

In caveman days this kept us safe, alive.

Brains throw out negative and positive labels. If you are paying attention to what you are thinking it may seem like there are a lot more negative labels coming out than positive ones.

That is because we use negative labels when we are anxious, fearful, angry, discouraged, frustrated, confused, or bored.

If we allow ourselves to feel this way most of the time our primitive brain will throw out A LOT of negative labels!

My primitive brain uses negative labels to keep me fearful and keep me from harm. The PRIMARY effect this has on me is to keep me from changing ANYTHING.

The SECONDARY effect this has on me is to make persistent thought loops of self-judgment, self-deception and low self-confidence that produce more negative thoughts! Who would want to consciously think this way!!!

We can’t stop our unconscious from brain labeling things for us. The thoughts slip up silently and are just there. I wish I could “reprogram” my brain to stop with the negative labels but my brain isn’t a computer.

If my brain tells me “I’m too old to learn that!”  “I’m too stupid to do that!” “I’m too ugly to be there!” then I don’t learn, experience, or enjoy life as much as I could.

But my primitive brain says, “Stay SAFE and COMFORTABLE with what you have always done and you won’t be harmed!”

My brain labeled a box of doughnuts as a GOOD way to stay SAFE and COMFORTABLE before I realized what it was doing.

My brain labeled the box of doughnuts SAFE and COMFORTABLE because the sugar calmed my fear that “I may never get another chance to eat a doughnut so I have to eat one NOW!” This thought of SCARCITY produced a feeling of fear. I felt so fearful of literally starving I would eat the doughnut to avoid the fear.

The only thing is, I don’t need the doughnut to prevent starving because I can buy a doughnut ANYTIME and ANYWHERE!

Our primitive brain’s strength is AMAZING.

Dr. Andy’s box of doughnuts used to be my Achilles heel. Some days I still want that doughnut, they show up on Fridays when I am tired, ready to relax, stressed from the week’s events and more susceptible to the SCARCITY label that produces my feeling of fear. And doesn’t that sound ridiculous when I say it out loud!

Think about what ridiculous labels you are using out of HABIT.

Find ways to light up your brain without food!