Some point around the Paleolithic period early humans started using rudimentary tools. I like to imagine someone getting angry and throwing a stick at a tree, accidentally knocking fruit down and realizing, hey, that’s a cool trick. We may have slowly gotten smart enough to try things like that, and reveled in the ability to make fire.

Prior to recently watching the following video, I’d always assumed that fire was significant mostly because it kept us warm in a time many probably died from exposure.

Cooked food may in fact be one of the big reasons we have big brains today, having evolved away from other primates.

The concept is basically this: cooked foods were easier to digest and therefore required less energy for Paleolithic humans to stay alive. Since the brain is one of the most expensive organs in terms of energy use, this excess energy led to brain growth and development over millions of years.

Whoa.

Cultural progress from intelligence is exponential; each advancement allows for more efficient advancement going forward, faster and faster until more isn’t efficient.

Evolution is a slow process, and one that takes a series of significant circumstances or needs to lead to change. The idea that a change in diet for a species can contribute to an increase in brain size, a change which ultimately sets it apart from all others, blows my mind.

It reminds me of Steve Jobs after he’d been diagnosed with cancer. I recall reading that he’d decided upon a vegetarian diet with the thinking that it’d require less energy to digest and therefore would prolong his life as he battled the cancer. It made some sense when I’d first read that a couple years ago, but that thinking takes on a new form now for me.

It also makes me more skeptical than ever of the “eat raw everything” fad that started some years ago.

Powering the mental machine

Eating well and staying hydrated go a long way toward maintaining alertness. I shake my head at how many years I went overboard on caffeine to stay charged and wondered why some days it seemed like I was drowsy in spite of it. These days it’s palpable; chug a 12 oz. glass of water and feel notably more awake in 15 minutes. Stay hydrated after drinking coffee? No caffeine crash.

True in the opposite sense as well: A former boss of mine wouldn’t eat all day, but would drink 6-10 cups of coffee just to be functional (read: not hyper). Yikes.

So if the brain is one of the most energy-consuming organs, does that mean being mentally active ramps up energy use like being physically active does?

Anecdotally I’ve found that days I’m pretty sedentary my appetite is minimal, whereas days where I’m busy and thinking intensely to solve problems I’m starving every couple hours. And that remains true even if physically I’m in a chair most of the day. If efficient nutrition was enough to evolve our brains into the mightiest on the planet, it’s no wonder we can see neurological benefits every day by making certain choices.

More on that last bit in another post.

Hopefully that provokes thought for you as well. Oh, and if you haven’t checked out the “It’s Okay To Be Smart” Youtube channel that the above video came from, definitely give it a look. A lot of great stuff there.

Categories: Musing and Science & Technology.

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