The Evolutionary Role of Cooking

Cooking is “the evolutionary change that underpins all others” and is what makes us human, according to Richard Wrangham, Harvard University. The theory: the process of cooking makes our food more digestible, freeing up a huge amount of calories that are then expended on other, more important, activities.

And with Homo sapiens, what makes the species unique in Dr Wrangham’s opinion is that its food is so often cooked.

Cooking is a human universal. No society is without it. No one other than a few faddists tries to survive on raw food alone. And the consumption of a cooked meal in the evening, usually in the company of family and friends, is normal in every known society. Moreover, without cooking, the human brain (which consumes 20-25% of the body’s energy) could not keep running. Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval.

via Link Banana

The Decay of Social Networks

Unaccountability and anonymity on the Internet has brought about “the end of empathy”, says Jason Calacanis, as he discusses the ‘condition’ of Internet Asperger’s Syndrome:

This disease affects people when their communication moves to digital, and the emotional cues of face-to-face interaction–including tone, facial expression and the so called “blush response”–are lost. […]

In this syndrome, the afflicted stops seeing the humanity in other people. They view individuals as objects, not individuals. The focus on repetitive behaviors–checking email, blogging, twittering and retiring andys–combines with an inability to feel empathy and connect with people.

[…] In IAS, screen names and avatars shift from representing people to representing characters in a video game. Our 2600’s and 64’s have trained us to pound these characters into submission in order to level up. We look at bloggers, people on Twitter and podcasters not as individuals, but as challenges–in some cases, “bosses”–that we must crush to make it to the next phase.

A good article discussing the perils of living our lives in public, although I feel it loses something toward the end when it takes on a more personal tone.

via LA Times

The Nun Study

The ‘Nun Study’ is a longitudinal study of ageing and Alzheimer’s that uses data gathered from over 600 nuns over the past 20+ years. Some interesting correlates are starting to appear:

The nuns make for a very unique population to study […] because of their similar lifestyles.

“They don’t smoke, they don’t drink, so you can reduce the effects of some of these other environmental factors, and focus in on other factors that might be harder to get your hands around in other population studies.” […]

Among the study’s findings are a relationship between early childhood education and reducing the susceptibility to Alzheimer’s disease, [and] a relationship between traumas to the brain, such as strokes, and an increased susceptibility to Alzheimer’s. […]

Another interesting finding has been that some of the nuns brains look like they have Alzheimer’s but the women weren’t exhibiting symptoms before they died.

“If that’s the case, there may be things you can do, even though you have the disease to slow down or prevent the expression of the disease symptoms”.

Reading this article, I’m not sure what I enjoyed the most: learning about this fascinating study, or the picture of the neuropathologist standing in front of over 600 plastic containers each holding a nun’s brain!

For more information on this study, Time wrote a comprehensive article back in 2001, and there’s a dedicated section on the University of Minnesota’s site.

via @mocost

Separating Conversations: The Cocktail Party Effect

The ‘cocktail party effect’ is the name given to our unusually adept ability of separating out conversations from one another. However it appears that we are unusually bad at retaining information from the discarded conversation(s):

Cherry [1953] found his participants picked up surprisingly little information [from the 'rejected' conversations], often failing to notice blatant changes to the unattended message. When asked afterwards, participants:

  • could not identify a single phrase from the speech presented to the rejected ear.
  • weren’t sure the language in the rejected ear was even English.
  • failed to notice when it changed to German.
  • mostly didn’t notice when the speech to the rejected ear was being played backwards (though some did report that it sounded a bit strange).

via Mind Hacks

The Dunbar Number and the Limits of Social Networking

The Economist looks at whether Dunbar’s number, the supposed limit of stable social relationships, holds true on social networking sites.

That […] online social networks will increase the size of human social groups is an obvious hypothesis, given that they reduce a lot of the friction and cost involved in keeping in touch with other people. […]

Primatologists call at least some of the things that happen on social networks “grooming“. In the wild, grooming is time-consuming and here computerisation certainly helps. But keeping track of who to groom—and why—demands quite a bit of mental computation. You need to remember who is allied with, hostile to, or lusts after whom, and act accordingly. Several years ago, therefore, Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist who now works at Oxford University, concluded that the cognitive power of the brain limits the size of the social network that an individual of any given species can develop.

Two items of note: Facebook has an “in-house sociologist”; and this man, Dr Cameron Marlow, reveals that the average number of friends correlates pretty closely to Dunbar’s number.

via Mind Hacks