Thinking with our body and getting hungry with our brain
Cognition occurs in the brain. Millions of specialized neurons send signals to each other, processing stimuli and sending out new commands to our bodies that help us understand and interact with the world. Of course, this system seems to be overridden when we’re feeling particularly hungry, in which case a lot of rational thinking seems to go out the window until we satisfy our tummy again. While there’s obviously no neurons working directly in our digestive tract, researchers studying the relationship between thought and physiology are finding some interesting dynamics that may help explain how we might sometimes find ourselves ‘thinking with our stomach.’
Figuring things out with physiology
As one of the larger-brained animals on the planet, humans generally deride the idea of being guided by hunger or other biological needs. However, researchers from the University of Exeter argue that a complex, calorie-hungry brain isn’t necessarily every species’ best option. Many animals do quite well using things like hunger as a sort of analog for memory in the brain. If an animal feels especially hungry, it doesn’t need to do a lot of complex analysis to know that its needs aren’t being met in its current environment, and so either its location or behavior needs to change. In this model, physiology can step in to motivate animals to seemingly smart choices, reducing the amount of calorie-hungry gray matter an animal needs to survive.
Stressed cells seek sugar
This isn’t to say that our brain plays no role in making choices in our lives. Indeed, tests with mice have shown that brain activity may effectively override physiological needs under the right conditions. The mice had brain cells in their paraventricular hypothalamus, which are associated with social stress, artificially stimulated. When offered different foods rich in either fat or sugar, the mice overwhelmingly binged on carbohydrates, beyond any dietary need for that much starch. With the similarities between human and mouse brains, this is likely tied to the concept of ‘stress eating,’ where we load up on foods even though we don’t necessarily need them. It’s a good reminder that neither our stomach nor our brain operates in isolation, and that what may feel like a choice or craving is probably the result of interactions between multiple systems in our body.
Source: Gut instinct makes animals appear clever by University of Exeter, Phys.org