Experiential Pica

tl;dr ver­sion: Akra­sia might be like an eat­ing di­s­or­der!

When I was a teenager, I ate ice. Lots of ice. Cups and cups and cups of ice, con­stantly, all day long, when it was freely available. This went on for years, dur­ing which time I ig­nored the fact that oth­ers found it pe­cu­liar. (“Oh,” I would joke to cu­ri­ous peo­ple at the school cafe­te­ria, ig­nor­ing the op­por­tu­nity to de­tect the strangeness of my be­hav­ior, “it’s for my pet pen­guin.”) I had my cache of ex­cuses: it keeps my mouth oc­cu­pied. It’s so nice and cool in the sum­mer. I don’t drink enough wa­ter any­way, it keeps me hy­drated. Yay, zero-calorie snack!

Then I turned sev­en­teen and at­tempted to donate blood, and was ba­si­cally told, when they did the finger-stick test, “Either this ma­chine is bro­ken or you should be in a dead faint.” I got some more tests done, con­firmed that ex­tremely scary things were wrong with my blood, and started tak­ing iron sup­ple­ments. I stopped eat­ing ice. I stopped hav­ing any in­ter­est in eat­ing ice at all.

Pica is an im­pulse to eat things that are not ac­tu­ally food. Com­pared to some of the things that peo­ple with pica eat, I got off very easy: ice did not do me any harm on its own, and was merely a symp­tom. But here’s the kicker: What I needed was iron. If I’d been con­sciously aware of that need, I’d have re­sponded to it with the sup­ple­ments far ear­lier, or with steak1 and spinach and ce­re­als for­tified with 22 es­sen­tial vi­tam­ins & min­er­als. Ice does not con­tain iron. And yet when what I needed was iron, what I wanted was ice.

What if akra­sia is ex­pe­ri­en­tial pica? What if, when you want to play Tetris or watch TV or tat doilies in­stead of do­ing your Se­ri­ous Busi­ness, that means that you aren’t go­ing to art mu­se­ums enough, or that you should get some ex­er­cise, or that what your brain re­ally craves is the chance to write a sym­phony?

The ex­is­tence—in­deed, prevalence—of pica is a perfect ex­am­ple of how the brain is very bad at com­mu­ni­cat­ing cer­tain needs to the sys­tems that can get those needs met. Even when the same mechanism—that of in­still­ing the de­sire to eat some­thing, in the case of pica—could be used to meet the need, the brain mis­fires2. It didn’t make me crave liver and shel­lfish and mo­lasses, it made me crave wa­ter in frozen form. A sub­stance which did noth­ing to help, and was very in­con­ve­nient to con­tinu­ally keep around and in­dulge in, and which made peo­ple look at me funny when I held up the line at the drink dis­penser for ten min­utes filling up half a dozen pa­per cups.

So why shouldn’t I be­lieve that, for lack of some non-food X, my brain just might force me to seek out un­re­lated non-food Y and make me think it was all my own brilli­ant idea? (“Yay, zero-calorie snack that hy­drates, cools, and is free or mere pen­nies from fast food out­lets when I have com­pletely emp­tied the ice­maker! I’m so clever!”)

The trou­ble, if one hopes to take this hy­poth­e­sis any farther, is that it’s hard to tell what your ex­pe­ri­en­tial defi­cien­cies might be3. The baseline needs for figure-skat­ing and flan-tast­ing prob­a­bly vary per­son-to-per­son a lot more than nu­tri­ent needs do. You can’t stick your finger, put a drop of blood into a lit­tle ma­chine that goes “beep”, and see if it says that you spend too lit­tle time weed­ing pe­onies. I also have no way to solve the prob­lem of be­ing akratic about at­tempted sub­sti­tu­tions for akra­sia-re­lated ac­tivi­ties: even if you dis­cov­ered for sure that by bak­ing a batch of muffins once a week, you would lose the crip­pling de­sire to play video games con­stantly, noth­ing’s stop­ping the de­sire to play video games from ob­struct­ing ini­tial at­tempts at muffin-bak­ing.

Pos­si­ble next steps to ex­plore the ex­pe­ri­en­tial pica idea and see how it pans out:

  • Study the habits of highly effec­tive peo­ple. Do you know some­body who seems un­plagued by akra­sia? What does (s)he do dur­ing down­time? Maybe some­one you’re ac­quainted with has hit on a good diet of ex­pe­rience that we could try to em­u­late.

  • If you are severely plagued by akra­sia, and there is some large class of ex­pe­riences that you com­pletely leave out of your life, at­tempt to find a way to in­cor­po­rate some­thing from that class. See if it helps. For in­stance, if you are prac­ti­cally never out­doors, take a short walk or just sit in the yard; if you prac­ti­cally never do any­thing for aes­thetic rea­sons, find some­thing pretty to look at or listen to; etc.

  • You might already have pe­ri­ods when you are less akratic than usual. No­tice what ex­pe­riences you have had around those times that could have con­tributed.

1I was not a veg­e­tar­ian un­til I had already been eat­ing ice for a very long time. The switch can only have ex­ac­er­bated the prob­lem.

2Some pica suffer­ers do in fact eat things that con­tain the min­eral they’re defi­cient in, but not all.

3Another prob­lem is that this the­ory only cov­ers what might be called “en­tic­ing” akra­sia, the pos­i­tive de­sire to do non-work things. It has noth­ing to say about aver­sive akra­sia, where you would do any­thing but what you metawant to do.