Cooking Changed the Size of Our Brains
Richard Wrangham: Well, cooking is a huge influence on the availability of energy. And ultimately, cooking does much more than provide energy, but the first great thing it does, which has not amazingly been appreciated until very recently, is that cooking gives us more energy than eating our food raw. And when our ancestors first learned to cook, then the great huge initial impact would have been that they got so much more energy that they would have had more babies than they had before. And their babies were to survive better, and the adults were to survive better simply because they were able to eat more and have more regular menstrual cycles and put more energy in the immune system. So, the first big thing about cooking is, it gives us a huge increase, but we don't know yet how much. But a big increase in how much energy we get out of our food.
When I was studying chimpanzees, I would normally take sandwiches with me, but there were days that, for one reason or another, I didn't, and because I was studying the feeding behavior of chimpanzees, I would regularly eat what they eat. If I eat everything that they eat that I could find. And on the days when I didn't have any prepared food with me, I would try to rely on what they eat. And you can eat it in the sense that you can chew it up and try to swallow it. Some of it is very strong tasting, which is kind of code word for really unpleasant, and some of it is okay. But it was not possible to find anything that I could fill my stomach with.
Well, the short story is that I realized after a bit that I simply could not get enough energy out of a chimpanzee diet, and then I started thinking, well what would be the best place that you would get a raw diet in the wild? And there may be better places that the chimpanzee forest, I don't think there are many. And this sent me off looking for the difference between humans and other animals in terms of their ability to survive on raw food. And I very rapidly discovered that although there are some myths to go in the opposite direction, humans are different from other species because we have adapted biologically such that we cannot survive on raw food in the same way that other animals can.
In some ways I shouldn't say we cannot survive, but we can't survive in the same way other animals can in this sense that whatever environment we are in, raw food is an unsatisfactory source. And the most dramatic example of this is that in the best study of the people who choose to live on raw food in modern urban environments, which is a great way to lose weight and can be very healthy and takes a lot of will, but is nevertheless has got many admirable aspects, but in the best study of people who do that, then first of all, a high proportion of people suffer energy shortage. They just are not getting enough energy to be able to maintain their bodies well. And the most dramatic point is that half of the women who eat all of their food raw are amenorrheic. That means that their ovarian system is closed down completely. Now, this is despite the fact that they are under ideal conditions. They are eating the best possible kind of foods being domesticated. There are no seasonal food shortages because they're eating from the global food resource; when it's not available in Germany, you can get it from Israel. They're eating food that is processed by blending and grinding and many raw foodists are even drying up to 114 degrees Fahrenheit and they're taking relatively little exercise compared to if you're gathering in the hot sun.
So, despite all of these advantages, still 50 percent of women living on an ideal raw food diet, aren't able to make a baby. In fact, it's more than 50 percent, because those are the 50 percent that are completely amenorrheic, whereas, the chimpanzee on that diet would be pumping out babies. So, humans, there is clearly something different than others. And we actually know what it is. Compared to other primates, we have tiny intestinal volumes, compared to other primates, we have these very small guts, and we have very small teeth. So, these are signals of an adaptation that occurred in our evolutionary past to loosing the ability to eat raw food. Why should we do that? Well, because we were eating cooked food and the cooked food was great for us, we didn't need raw food anymore, so get rid of the ability to do it. And that's what we did.
So we've been committed to eating cooked food for a period of time that is still under dispute, but I think it's 1.9 million years ago, all the way to the beginning of our genus.
Question: What happened to the size of the brain and the intestine as a result of eating cooked food?
Richard Wrangham: Well, there's this fascinating set of possibilities that relate the size of the brain to what has happened to the reduction to the size of our guts. And the background for this is that, in order to understand how brains get big over evolutionary time, you have to think both about the advantages of being smart because that's why you have big brains, of course. And the costs of fueling the brain because though our brains only represent only, what is it, 2.5% of the weight of our body, they represent about 20% of our basil metabolic rate. So they are disproportionately hungry in terms of the amount of calories they consume. And that means to have a big brain; you have to supply calories to it at a high rate. So, how do we do that? Well, is it by having a high basil metabolic rate? Not at all. We have exactly the basil metabolic rate expected of any other primate. Is it by taking some of the energy we use to feed some other organ and supply it to the brain? Yes. It has to be. So which organ is it?
Well in the primates, the only way that they can find energy to give to their brains, as it were, is -- I shouldn't say the only way, but a major way, is through reduction of the size of the gut. Those primates that happen to have small guts because they happen to be evolved to eat a high quality diet are able to have some spare energy that they would have used for the gut, they no longer have, and they divert that to the brain.
In other words, primates with small guts have big brains. Well, we have the smallest guts of all; we have the biggest brains of all. So, it looks as though there is a connection there and since the reason to for our small guts is the fact that we cook, that suggests that it's cooking that really facilitated this. And by the way, the time when our brain really takes off in size was about two million years ago.
The reason it looks as though we started cooking about two million years ago is that it's around that time, 1.9 that you first see evidence of our ancestors having two signals that are associated with a small gut. And that is a narrower rib cage, and a narrower pelvis. In addition, you have, for the first time -- or no, not for the first time, but at that point, you have the biggest drop in the history of human evolution in the size of the teeth, the chewing teeth. Well that's associated with another effect of cooking, which is it makes your food softer. And because it makes your food softer, you don't need big teeth. Small teeth seems to be an advantage because maybe because they are less easily damaged than big teeth. So that happens then.
And there's a third thing that happens around the same time which is this is the point in our evolution when we stopped being ape-like in the sense that we abandoned the morphology of the shoulder and the upper arms that allowed us to climb. Now for the first time, we look like us. And that means we are not very good at climbing in trees. Well, that means that we slept on the ground, and how are you going to sleep on the ground? In the middle of Africa with elephants and rhinoceroses and lions and leopards around? The only way that you would be willing to sleep like that nowadays is with a fire, if you are out in the open. And so that suggests that that was a time when our ancestors first controlled fire, enabled them to sleep on the ground, lose their climbing adaptations. Soften the food; get the teeth smaller. The food became much more digestible and they could have a smaller gut.
So, those are all the things pointing to cooking emerging immensely older than people used to think. And people used to think, maybe 200,000 years ago. But I would say ten times as far as that.
We have the smallest guts of all primates, and the biggest brains. Blame cooking.
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Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.
As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.
Researchers develop the first objective tool for assessing the onset of cognitive decline through the measurement of white spots in the brain.
- MRI brain scans may show white spots that scientists believe are linked to cognitive decline.
- Experts have had no objective means of counting and measuring these lesions.
- A new tool counts white spots and also cleverly measures their volumes.
White spots and educated guesses<p>The white spots, or "hyperintensities," are brain lesions—fluid-filled holes in the brain believed to have been left behind by the breaking down of blood vessels that had previously provided nourishment to brain cells.</p><p>Prior to the new research, the quantity of white spots was assessed using an imprecise three-point scale indicating ascending likelihoods of dementia: A minimal number of spots was considered as level 1, a medium number of spots level 2, and a great number of them level 3.</p>
How the new measurements were derived<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTc1OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNDQ1ODExNX0.vqhQJSvL99KjOe24TOs4E8R7c6-pprbXYSrGcIqbVps/img.jpg?width=980" id="c64d9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="002d9b8ef47b5a86c3a387ad2cd90629" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: sfam_photo/Shutterstock<p>The team of researchers from NYU's Langone's <a href="https://med.nyu.edu/departments-institutes/neurology/divisions-centers/center-cognitive-neurology" target="_blank">Center for Cognitive Neurology</a> and <a href="https://med.nyu.edu/departments-institutes/neurology/divisions-centers/center-cognitive-neurology/alzheimers-disease-research-center" target="_blank">Alzheimer's Disease Research Center</a> were led by <a href="https://med.nyu.edu/faculty/jingyun-chen" target="_blank">Jingyun "Josh" Chen</a>. They analyzed 72 MRI scans from a national database of older people taken as part of the <a href="http://adni.loni.usc.edu" target="_blank">Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative</a> (ADNI). The scans were mostly of white people over age 70, and there were a roughly equivalent number of men and women. Some had normal brain function, some were presenting moderate cognitive decline, and some had severe dementia.</p><p>Without knowing each individual's diagnosis, the researchers analyzed the white spots in their scans. While the team counted each scan's lesions, the innovation they introduced was the production of a 3D measurement for each lesion's fluid volume. The measurement was derived by measuring a lesion's distance from opposite sides of the brain.</p><p>Measurements of 0 milliliters (mL) were assessed for areas without white spots, with other white spots coming up as containing 60 mL of fluid. Chen's team predicted that volumes over 100 mL could signify severe dementia.</p><p>"Amounts of white matter lesions above the normal range should serve as an early warning sign for patients and physicians," Chen told <a href="https://nyulangone.org/news/white-matter-lesion-mapping-tool-identifies-early-signs-dementia" target="_blank">NYU Langone Health NewsHub</a>.</p><p>When the team compared the likely diagnoses derived from their calculations against the individuals' medical records, they found that their predictions were correct about 7 out of 10 times.</p><p>The researchers compiled their formulas into an online tool that's available to physicians for free via <a href="https://github.com/jingyunc/wmhs" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">GitHub</a>. The researchers plan to further refine and test it using an additional 1,495 brain scans representing a more diverse group of individuals from the ADNI database.</p>
The new tool and its limits<p>Chen notes that white spots alone may not tell the entire story of an individual's cognitive decline or the onset of dementia. Other factors must be considered as well, including memory loss, hypertension, and brain injuries.</p><p>Nonetheless, says senior investigator <a href="https://med.nyu.edu/faculty/yulin-ge" target="_blank">Yulin Ge</a>, "Our new calculator for properly sizing white matter hyperintensities, which we call 'bilateral distancing,' offers radiologists and other clinicians an additional standardized test for assessing these lesions in the brain, well before severe dementia or stroke damage."</p><p>Having an objective means of measuring white hyperintensities will allow physicians not only to get a better handle on the association between white spots and dementia, but also to track the spots alongside changes to a person's tau and beta-amyloid proteins, two chemicals implicated in Alzheimer's disease and dementia.</p>
A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.
- There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
- A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
- Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.
First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)
Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.
All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.
Image source: European Space Agency
The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.
Into and out of Earth's shadow
In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.
The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."
In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."
When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.
The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.
BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.
MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.
Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.
Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?
- Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
- Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
- Curiously, six cities are the 'capitals' of both their horizontal and vertical deciles.
Sweeping re-alignments<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTAwOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzU3ODA1NH0.u_5xakBvkYwgPtiwLU3z-1e082hBeqwS4Rl1uiJqdF4/img.png?width=980" id="23ff1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="24a5b6ec251a11f3ed7aaefc205dde17" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Printed in March 1812, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists. The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts, as a dragon-like "monster". Federalist newspaper editors and others at the time likened the district shape to a salamander, and the word gerrymander was a portmanteau of that word and Governor Gerry's last name." />
The original cartoon of the 'Gerry-Mander', published in 1812 in the Boston Centinel.
Image: Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835), Public Domain.<p>One way for a political party to manipulate the outcome of elections is to 'gerrymander' electoral districts: manipulate their boundaries to increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome (see also #<a href="https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/53-ever-been-ger..." target="_blank">53</a>).</p><p><span></span>The term is almost as old as the United States itself, and the practice continues to disfigure the electoral map to this day. Perhaps these maps can serve as the inspiration for a radical solution. </p><p><span></span>They show the contiguous United States (i.e. without Alaska and Hawaii) sliced latitudinally and longitudinally into ten straight-bordered bands of varying size, so that each contains exactly 10 percent of the population. </p><p><span></span>Although certainly not intended as a reflection on electoral redistricting, it's tempting to see these sweeping re-alignments of the U.S. as a suggestion with some potential in that direction. </p>
United Strips of America<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTA4MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzE1MjQ1MX0.WpISo-g15B5O3qXbHXHf-7lQtAainpO7zPuizXWFOGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d6656" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="72ed7c905283f9979ec0f82d451ad261" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Reddit user curiouskip used U.S. Census population data to divide the 'Lower 48' into deciles (ten equal parts), each representing about 30.8 million people. Each decile is consigned its most populous city as 'capital'." />
The contiguous United States, divided into horizontal and vertical deciles.
Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.<p>Reddit user curiouskip used U.S. Census population data to divide the 'Lower 48' into deciles (ten equal parts), each representing about 30.8 million people. Each decile is consigned its most populous city as 'capital'.</p><p><span></span>Looking at the top map, which divides the U.S. into 10 longitudinal strips, we see</p><ul><li>Seattle rules the northernmost slice of territory. It is the broadest, and therefore also the emptiest one.</li><li>The Chicago, Omaha, New York City and Indianapolis strips complete the northern half of the country. And indeed: 50 percent of the population occupies roughly one half of the country, from north to south.</li><li>The dividing line between the top and bottom halves of the country runs from just north of the San Francisco Bay to halfway across the Delmarva Peninsula.</li><li>Capital cities of the southern strips are San Jose, Charlotte, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston.</li><li>The Houston Strip is divided into two non-contiguous areas. Florida maintains its panhandle, albeit much reduced. </li></ul><p>The bottom map shows the U.S. divided latitudinally into 10 bands of equal population. </p><ul><li>San Jose and Los Angeles both retain their capital status, this time of the two westernmost strips.</li><li>San Antonio is the main city of the Big Empty, more than twice as wide as the second-broadest band.</li><li>The dividing line between America's eastern and western half, population-wise, is far off-center: it skirts the eastern edge of Chicago, making the western half much bigger than the eastern one.</li><li>Houston, Chicago, and Indianapolis also remain the largest cities in their respective bands.</li><li>Further east, Jacksonville and Philadelphia get to rule over their strip of America, while Charlotte and New York City keep winning, both vertically and horizontally.</li></ul><p>Redistricting a country into zones of equal population – and that being your only criterium – will create districts that are randomly diverse, and perhaps also, at least in this case, unmanageably large. </p><p>However, mixing up the political map with a bunch of straight lines as the only instrument is something that has been considered before. Usually, the objective is the wholesale removal of age-old divisions. <br></p>
Perfectly square departments<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTEzOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTQyMzIwOH0.kYuf58g0bjsPL9DGPq5PycZ7PDJMnItT0rfrPonOP3k/img.jpg?width=980" id="89a68" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5b81a43e785997bb1f11f72548659a9f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bCh\u00e2ssis figuratif du territoire de la France partag\u00e9 en divisions \u00e9gales entre elles, proposition annex\u00e9e au rapport du 29 septembre 1789 \u00e0 l'Assembl\u00e9e nationale de la commission dite Siey\u00e8s-Thouret" />
France divided into 80-odd geometrical departments: failed proposal by Jacques-Guillaume Thouret (1790).
Image: Centre historique des Archives nationales – Atelier de photographie; public domain.
European Pie<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTQ0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTE5NDE3OX0.dPcY1tkO7nwkx6IX98Sleh7AmBpDnwlcJLfC_Z-WBlY/img.jpg?width=980" id="b35d7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="84509a9425e13c0dd8fbe00df28a197e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
In this rather outlandish proposal, continental Europe's 24 cantons center on Vienna.
Image: PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Maps, Cornell University.<p>And in 1920, an anonymous author – possibly the Austrian P.A. Maas – proposed slicing up Post-World-War-I Europe as a pie, into 24 slices that would center on Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral. Each of those slices would be made up of a wide and random variety of linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups – and that would be the point: the better to unite them all into one massive superstate (see also #<a href="https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/a-bizarre-peace-proposal-slice-europe-up-like-a-pie" target="_blank">851</a>).</p><p>Needless to say, both plans never left the drawing board. Would a proposal for the longitudinal and/or latitudinal redistricting of the U.S. have more traction? <br></p>
Coast-to-coast precedents<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTIwOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDM2OTE0OX0.52UjcA_YD9Y9UB9_hoSctI_xBrRDALZ2DRLkIo9a8RM/img.jpg?width=980" id="10784" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1999808ea21e11162fdb9181c3912753" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Illustration of the Connecticut Charter boundary, 1662" />
Putting the 'connect' into Connecticut: the Nutmeg State extending from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Image: Connecticuthistory.org<p>Well, for one, coast-to-coast polities have some pedigree in America's past: some of the first colonies had claims that extended from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific. </p><p>If history had gone entirely the way Connecticut would have wanted, the state would include such inland cities as Detroit, Chicago, and Salt Lake City, and extended to what is now the northern part of California.</p><p>Is such geopolitical weirdness reasonable or feasible today? Absolutely not. But in its randomness, would it be it as unfair as gerrymandering? </p><p><em><br></em></p><p><em>Decile maps of the contiguous United States reproduced with kind permission by u/curiouskip; found <a href="https://www.reddit.com/r/dataisbeautiful/comments/ijyn7p/oc_us_population_deciles_by_latitude_and_longitude/" target="_blank">here</a> on <a href="https://www.reddit.com/" target="_blank">Reddit</a>.<br></em></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1054</strong></p><p><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a><em>.</em></p>