Jackson lay on the ground kicking in the center of the State Fair. The midway was hot, smelly and filled with pedestrians. It was the year of the of infamous hoof-and-mouth disease outbreak. I looked at my four-year-old son, trying to gauge if he was old enough to be deemed psychotic.
I turned to his sister Tyler and said, “I guess this is totally happening.”
She nodded and studied the ride map. “Do you want me to drag him by the feet to the sidewalk?”
Tyler was seven, Porter was six, Noah was one and the crazy child was four. People stepped over him as he yelled, “I’m so firsty! My mouf is dry!”
He spoke that way because he couldn’t form his “th” sound yet – or else he was speaking in tongues. It could have been both.
I picked him up and threw him over a shoulder as Tyler pushed Noah’s stroller. Porter held my other hand and snapped and unsnapped his helmet. Draped over my neck, Jack kicked his feet and hit my back.
“I’m dying of first!”
“I think Jack wants water!” Noah said, who at 18 months enunciated better than the rest of us.
“Got it, thanks Noah.”
We got to a drinking fountain and I leaned down and stuck Jack’s face in the stream. The water splashed against his head and rolled down his cheek. He turned and screamed to the onlookers, “I’m dying. I’m so firsty!”
“Drink!” I yelled.
I put my fingers in his mouth.
“I can’t breafe,” he said.
“He can’t breathe, Mom,” Tyler echoed.
“Swallow!” Noah piped up.
“Drink so we can have FUN!” I said sternly. Parental firmness is not my strong suit, but I said it in my most serious voice.
“You are thirsty and hungry. You need to drink some water.” I realized I was reasoning with a person that was pounding my back with tiny fists.
Porter flapped and broke into hysterical laughter that usually preceded inappropriate behavior.
Given we were surrounded by rides and games there was a surprising amount of stress in the air
Finally I reached down, hooked the side of Jack’s mouth and opened it so water ran in. He swallowed repeatedly because he was parched or choking, then he climbed off my shoulder. I handed him a peanut butter sandwich I had in my bag and he ate it in three bites. A minute later he whirled around and did a hand stand.
“Let’s go to the thcrambler!” He said.
You’d think with my firsthand experience with the links between kids’ physiology and mood, I’d be an expert on the topic. I should know the importance of hydration and nutrition. Instead, it’s something I forget several times a week.
It’s worth remembering, though. Research has shown that the amount of glucose in our blood directly affects our level of self-control. While the brain is only 2% of our body mass, it consumes more than 20% of our energy as it pulls glucose from the liver. When we are thirsty, hungry or tired, our chances of completing difficult things or maintaining a decent mood drop significantly.
Findings from a study in the February, 2007 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 9, No. 2) show that self-control forms a direct line to the glucose in our blood. When we are depleted, our ability to make good decisions and control our impulses disappears. So instead of thinking our way out of irrational moods, we may need to act our way out.
Studies have shown that even small uses of willpower, like choosing a carrot instead of a cookie, lower our glucose, making further self-control even more difficult.
The ramifications continue. Our ability to reach our goals (whether dieting, exercise or being sane) is directly connected to our physiological state.
Recent data backs this up. In another research study participants watched an upsetting movie about animals in a slaughterhouse. They were told to avoid emotion and sit quietly through the film.
The same subjects then were given unsolvable problems and observed to see how long they would try to figure them out. After controlling for glucose levels at the start of the experiment researchers discovered that those who stifled emotion in the film had lower glucose. They also gave up on the problems faster.
When the same subjects drank sugary liquids they were able to stick with the puzzles longer.
It seems at times that my field of psychology mainly confirms things we can learn from our children, or even our dogs: eat when you are hungry, drink when you are thirsty and take a nap when you feel tired. We like to think that our decisions and mood are more sophisticated than that, but it all rests on our basic physical state.