The Shangri-La diet Shangri-la Diet book is out; it’s eccentric author is doing his book tour; the echos of the PR machine are reverberating thru the media ecosystem; and apparently I’m not immune to their effects. Darn!
What caught me was two things. This fun cheerful paper on “Self Experimentation” by the diet’s inventor Seth Roberts. What really did me in though was more than 30 years ago when I first became interested in cults I read my way through some marvellously silly books written by “Jane Roberts.” Jane’s gig was channeling, she would channel a dude name Seth. It’s a great exemplar of the art of speaking like a mystic; you know stuff like: “transforming invisible atoms into the dazzling theater of the world.” One side effect is that whenever I hear the name Seth I tend to get a foxy smile, and this time the name Roberts too!
I might not even have read the paper on self experimentation if it hadn’t been authored for inclusion in a book on behaviorism. I’m a huge fan of practical behaviorism; and I often recommend Jane Pryor’s book “Don’t shoot the Dog.” It’s delightful and a far better thing to read than this new diet book.
The diet turns about to be behaviorist at its core. Animals all (really all of them apparently) are very good at learning causal chains of behaviors; most of which end in food. The classic version of this is Pavloff’s dogs who he noticed would salivate when he rang the dinner bell; rather than when the food showed up. Animal trainers can do amazing things with these causal chains getting animals to walk around on two feet, jump through flaming rings, roll over, etc. etc. all just for a treat. The behaviorists have written libraries full of papers about the fine tuning of these causal chains, how to strengthen them, weaken them, extend them, etc. etc.
So the trick at the heart of Robert’s scheme is to weaken the causal chain between taste and calories. Consider the animal that has built a link between a bell and dinner. If that animal wants calories it craves the bell; it’s weird but true. Now of course a bell isn’t calories so we can weaken that link in two simple ways. We could randomly ring the bell so the animal abandons it’s illusion that these two things are linked. Plan B is we could stop ringing the bell before meals. Either will work just fine; though as the behaviorist research shows these links can be surprisingly robust if they have been trained up just right.
Robert discovered that both tricks appear to work. That he could reduce the body’s craving for food (aka taste) by either means. He could providing a lot of random tastes so it wouldn’t build a strong link between them. He even found articles in the literature of experiments where animals whose food was flavored somewhat at random – they stopped eating so much. He could also break the linkage by providing calories with zero flavor. In both cases is the outcome is a weakened causal chain between taste and calories; which in turn leads to reduced craving for food.
The theory is somewhat more complex than I’m making it here. You’d have no trouble finding a few dozen explainations if you poke around in the web. But for me I was particularly taken to see a diet based on such an extremely simple confident application of behaviorism.