Cooking and the Brain

Ever wondered what is so special about human brains versus those of other animals? I mean, why is it that we have developed in to the beings that invented space travel, the Internet and Zumba?

Suzana Herculano-Houzel in her Ted Talk on the subject suggests it is because we learned how to cook.

Here is how the argument goes. Apparently humans have more neurons than any other species. 86 billion to be precise. It is neurons that transmit information throughout our bodies and the fact we have the most, even though our brains are actually not the largest in size when compared to other mammals, is why humans have superior cognitive abilities.

Neurons are costly though, from an energy perspective. The average human being needs about 2,000 calories a day to function optimally, and 500 of those daily calories are used to keep our brains running. 25% of the calories from your daily food intake are required to ensure your brain activity is maintained.

Apes have large bodies but their brains are not as large or as powerful as ours because the number of calories they can ingest is limited by the eating habits that they maintain. Even though they eat for about eight hours per day, the calories they consume can only sustain a brain with about 30 billion neurons.

So, why are humans able to keep those 86 billion chugging along? The answer is our early adoption of cooking techniques. At it’s most basic, to cook is to use fire to pre-digest food outside our bodies. When we eat cooked food, we are able to absorb the calorific value in to our gut much more quickly, and therefore extract more energy from our food in a much shorter period of time.

Because cooking made our large brain affordable in terms of energy consumption, we went rapidly from raw foods to culture, agriculture, civilization, grocery stores, electricity, refrigerators and up to today where the pace of technological innovation is so fast that it is hard to keep up.

In closing Suzana says:

Studying the human brain changed the way I think about food. I now look at my kitchen, and I bow to it,and I thank my ancestors for coming up with the invention that probably made us humans.


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