How Cooking Made Us Smarter: A Q&A With Suzana Herculano-Houzel

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Spring 2016 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

BW: Any suggestions on what to eat for our cognitive development?

SHH: In our modern world today, we know that we can open the fridge whenever our stomach growls. If cooking is something you enjoy, thanks to chain distributions and grocery stores, you have the ability to go to work and still have enough time to cook for yourself if you want. If you do not enjoy cooking and want to make some other use of your time, there also is prepackaged food that you can just heat up at home. That is the great thing about technologies, and cooking is one of the first we developed: They free up time for other activities. But just like technology is often demonized, industrialized foods tend to take the blame for our modern, bad eating habits.

The problem is that industrialized foods have low water content — if any at all. What that means is that they are highly calorie dense, as opposed to the food that you eat at home that was just cooked and soaked in water (a lot of what you eat at home is water — meaning it has no calories). If you eat industrialized cookies and cakes, or most handy, ready-made snacks, there is hardly any water intake. Eating 200 grams of food at home means ingesting maybe 50 to 60 grams of carbs, fat, and protein; but eating 200 grams of industrialized foods means something much closer to 200 grams of carbs, fat, and protein. It is easy to demonize preservers and other chemicals, but often they are the same chemicals you find in nature, such as vitamin C. The actual problem with eating in the modern world is how easy it has become to get more calories than one actually needs — especially with prepackaged food.

BW: What do you think about juice cleanses?

SHH: These cleanses are not guaranteed to give you the calories you need, much less the nutrients. There are juices and juices. They may or may not have a lot of natural sugar from fruits, and they usually are poor in protein, which means that those will be days when essentially all of your calories come from carbohydrates, so you will be getting energy but not nutrition, with hardly any protein to maintain your muscles, or fat to sustain all the myelin and cell membranes in your brain. Fat is demonized like everything else. You need fat, you need cholesterol so much that your body makes it itself — especially if you are on a vegetarian diet, which means you are not eating cholesterol at all.

If you don’t ingest enough proteins in those juices, your body will turn sugar into some amino acids, but will also eat up your own muscles for the other amino acids that it needs. The good side of these cleanses is that you go on a one-day fast, and some studies suggest that sporadic fasting is actually a good thing. Your body works well with that. But there have been other studies that say not at all. I do not think there is enough evidence to say one way or the other. The most important thing is to have the information and make sensible choices for yourself. Want to go on a juice cleanse? Sure! Just know what it is you are doing. Know that just because you are feeling better does not mean you are healthier — not in the long term.

BW: Many perspectives associate cooking and eating with joy and happiness. Would you agree?

SHH: Gathering sufficient calories to keep you alive for another day is a highly pleasurable activity — it should be. That satisfaction is what drives us to keep looking for food. An animal that needs to spend eight hours per day feeding needs this drive badly. We humans solved the problem of getting enough calories quickly by cooking — but we still have the same brain that finds pleasure in eating. The upside, however, is that our satisfaction with life is contingent upon the same ability of the brain to find pleasure in its own actions; to be happy with what you do, to find joy in turning those brain capabilities into abilities. Learning is a highly pleasurable activity — just like eating. I think that this ability to take pleasure in our own actions is one of the most fundamental things that the brain can achieve.

BW: Any last words?

SHH: I find it at the same time very humbling and very liberating to remember that we are animals, like any other primate. With all the implications that come along with being a primate, we have the same needs, habits, vices. We enjoy being in charge, we like being able to resort to all different types of ruses to control others, to feel in power. These are all a result of our primate nature and how primate societies work. But, thanks to the invention of cooking or whatever it was that allowed us to have this many neurons in the cerebral cortex, we have an advantage over other animals. We have enough complexity to look at ourselves and look at what we are doing and even choose to do things differently.

We are able to choose not to hurt, to choose to do good, to choose to not eat as much simply because one can, or to not spend your entire day looking at your phone just because you can, not outsource your cognitive abilities just because you can. There is a lot to benefit from ditching the idea that we are special. We are not special. We are just one more primate, but we happen to have a lot of interesting capabilities if we choose — provided, of course, that we are given the opportunities. It is really up to us.

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Spring 2016 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)


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