Comfort Crash Course

Comfort Crash Course, Day 1: Craving (or, You Can’t Always Get What You Want)

4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort

Comfort Crash Course, Day 1

It’s been exactly 24 hours since I boarded the Hanjin Palermo, and already I have learned a valuable lesson: it’s one thing to say you’re leaving the comforts of city life behind for 15 days, and it’s another to actually do it.

This struck me this morning when I found myself with an incredibly strong craving for three things: fresh berries, a run, and an espresso with almond milk. In that order.

It sounds silly. I travel away from the comforts of home often, and there are a lot of things I miss when I do: my friends, my family, the mountains—even my barista. But for all my fretting about being cut off from city life, fruit, a run, and an espresso are the last things I thought I’d miss right off the bat.

Completely by chance, I came upon a fascinating insight into the neurological function behind this. As I began the massive task of sifting through my Comfort Crash Course reading list, the first thing I came to was entitled “The Craving Brain,” a chapter in the Malcolm Gladwell-esque book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, suggested to me by a Lab|Log reader. It explains the fascinating, inextricable feedback loop between habit and craving.

What I learned is this: We develop cravings when our brains begin to anticipate the reward of a certain habitual action.

Scientists have found, for instance, that if a monkey is trained to pull a lever each time it sees a certain shape on a screen, and is rewarded with drops of its favorite juice each time it does so, its brain activity will spike in a manner that suggests happiness when it receives the juice. If it repeats this exercise enough times, however, its brain will begin to show happy spikes as soon as the monkey sees the shape—before it has even received the juice—because it is anticipating the reward. This is a craving.

If the juice then doesn’t arrive, however, the monkey’s brain shows the neurological pattern associated with desire or frustration, and it will, despite any distractions, stay glued to the screen to repeat the task in hopes of eventually receiving the reward. Thus, a habit is formed.

It’s a feedback loop.

“This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings,” Duhigg writes. “Most of the time these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.”

It’s the same neurological function that makes us want a sugary, carby treat when we see a box of doughnuts, or reach over and grab a fry from our friend’s McDonald’s meal even though we’re not hungry and don’t even like the taste of fast food. Our brain is experiencing the happy reward of salt and fat before we’ve even put the food in our mouth. If we don’t put the food in our mouth, our brain will be disappointed, which makes us eat it.

This perfectly explains my strawberry, run, and espresso craving. I’m used to having these things immediately upon waking up, so even before I go through the motions I’m anticipating the sweetness of the fruit, the endorphins of the run, and the jolt of the espresso.

When I travel, I can usually adapt this routine, with different fruits, a new running spot, and a coffee from a cafe. But here I don’t have that option. There is less on this ship than in even the smallest town: no stores, no cafes, no library, no parks—nor are there any roads to take me to another town in search of any of those things.

So this morning it was driving me nuts.

But it made me think a lot about the things we crave and do, and why we crave or do them. So much of what we do and want is simply because it’s there, like the box of doughnuts or the fry. We buy things we don’t need because we see them in store windows; we eat when we’re not hungry because we saw a flashing sign advertising 99-cent pizza. This is fine once in a while, but not when it becomes a way of life.

Of course it’s not just urban dwellers this happens to. People who live on top of mountains have daily rituals and habits that are fed by cravings, and so do animals. But in the city the opportunities are writ large. One of the things that draws us to cities is that they let us have what we want, when we want it. This is especially apparent to me right now, after spending the past few weeks in a nonstop city like New York, which not only bombards you with endless cues of things to crave, but also gives you the ability to satisfy those cravings at almost any time. It’s thrilling, yes. But the result is a consumer habit based much more heavily on desire, or even impulse, than on need.

I am no less guilty of this than anyone else. If you were to ask me to quickly list the top ten things that comfort me, at least half would be objects or foods. A list of things I regularly crave would look the same.

So it makes me wonder: if there is so much less to crave here away from it all, away from the opportunity to give in, how, in turn, will my habits change? Will they change again once I’m back on shore? Will I need less, or simply need different things?

Is comfort the satisfaction of a craving, or can I find comfort in the absence of satiation; in simply not craving?

Photos: Christine McLaren.

The Comfort Crash Course is a two-week series by BMW Guggenheim Lab|Log blogger Christine McLaren as she journeys 15 days from New York to Berlin via containership, following the same cross-Atlantic route traveled by the Lab itself last fall. In the complete absence of city life, and armed with a library of diverse readings that helped inspire the theme for the Lab’s first cycle, Confronting Comfort, as well as others recommended by Lab|Log followers, she explores this theme at its core. The goal: to discover and understand the roots of the human quest for comfort—and why it needs to be confronted. More here.

  • Ucce A.

    Ship rides aren’t all “berries and espresso” eh? Keep it up Christine! I’ve sent you some readings as well. I hope you’ll find them helpful!

    Ucce A.

  • Redcoat33

    Nice to see the waves are tiny for now.

    Hugs from Dad

    • Christine McLaren

      * embarrassed teenage voice *: Thanks Dad…

  • Mary

    Do you think that your cravings could change for those habits you might learn over your next two weeks?  Like instead of craving espresso, might you crave a gust of salty air?  Regardless, I hope fresh sushi awaits you ashore!

    BGL NY intern

    • Christine McLaren

      Ha! I gave Berliner sushi a go this week and my west coast sensibilities were far from offended. The future is bright and raw!

  • Anonymous

    I guess comfort is an ever-changing paradigm as we move through life – and the high seas!  Who knows, you may emerge with a raving addiction to shipboard food and salt water spray. Hope you are getting lots of time to read, write, sleep or anything else that brings some measure of “comfort” to this journey!



    • Christine McLaren

      * embarrassed teenage voice again *: Thanks Mom…

  • Nancy

    Nice writing, Christine! I look forward to hearing more about your life aboard one of the giant container ships I’m used to seeing in English Bay, and learning what habits you develop on the Hanjin Palermo. 
    I gave up caffeine (save for green tea) a few weeks ago… I read your blog as I enjoyed my mid-morning cup of green tea now and realized, with a jolt, how much I’ve come to depend on this new habit. Take care, Nan