Tasty Neuroscience, With a Dollop of Evolution and Anthropology, Please

Brain science is cool and getting cooler. Scientists from different disciplines are collaborating, researching, wiring brains up and proposing ever more provocative insights into how we think, why we think, and how we ended up the way we are. The pace of discovery is increasing and there’s every expectation that it will continue to amaze.

Within that ever-changing environment of what is known, suggested and considered, John S. Allen has written a solid book, The Omnivorous Mind. Accessible but not simple, the work grounds contemporary neuroscience with an anthropological understanding of evolution and change. Food is an important and relevant fulcrum for observation and argumentation. Eating is fundamental, yet carries with it so much more than basic biology. Allen uses the centrality of food as a framework for his book and to engage the reader. All in all, he is surprisingly effective at balancing tone, topic and narrative. It’s a fun read and imparts a sense of wonder and curiosity.

The book’s fundamental question is how do humans “think” food. We know how to obtain food, we know how to cook and to eat. What do we think about it all? And why? The ultimate answer that Allen proposes, a theory or network of food akin to a theory of the mind, is somewhat problematic. But that doesn’t discount the value of the journey. Allen enlightens on many subjects, from chimpanzee sex to the brain’s limbic system. He does so clearly, with a light but firm touch. It is a pleasure to read.

Starting off with an extensive discussion of “crispy” – which is different from “crunchy” – Allen sketches out linguistic, cultural, historical and anthropological frameworks for analysis. Crispy, for example, often carries with it cooked (a good thing for many reasons) or fresh (another good thing). Working more from a biological perspective next, Allen offers a high-level review of what the human body needs to eat and how it has gone about obtaining it. The senses figure prominently in this equation and they are part of what makes us want to eat more and more, and not necessarily wisely. Food decisions, too, are grounded in experience and memory. In fact, food memories may be more important than other kinds of memories as triggers. These memories and meanings, woven together, establish a food-view something akin to a world-view.

What this means in real life is that we think of some birds as food as some as not. Further, this distinctions exists across cultures and is not necessarily related to caloric output or taste. Whether we realize it or not, all potential “foods” are understood within categories of what is or is not good or tasty. These categories are richer, too, than what we think of as good or bad food, which are freighted with personal and cultural meaning.  Eaten any insects lately? Allen weaves these themes together in a discussion of how foods evolve, from the creativity of opportunity to the brilliance of chefs. His narrative here works less effectively as strays farther from the underpinnings of the book.

In building his conclusion, Allen goes deep into neuroscience and the approach begs the questions as to whether he is more interested in brain or mind. They need not stand in opposition, but it is clear that any theory of the mind has a profound impact on our thinking about any other systems, real or proposed.

My takeaway was not dissimilar from a tasty meal that doesn’t fill me up – really good fun but more is needed. I am very much looking forward to more works by Mr. Allen and more studies that render neuroscience digestible for the rest of us.