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How the brain can bring freedom to eaters

I read something interesting about whales recently. While some scientist go into raptures over how intelligent they are, this thing I read about their brains, made me realize that humans are a lot more clever by design, but, by trying to be clever, we have mistakenly taken a step down and behave like whales instead...let me explain:

Whales have a voluntary respiratory system. That means that they must consciously remember to breathe, otherwise they drown. They must think about each breath.

To avoid drowning during sleep, it is crucial that whales retain control of their blowhole. The blowhole is a flap of skin that opens and closes under the voluntary control of the animal. To breathe, a whale must be conscious and alert to recognize that its blowhole is at the surface.

While sleeping, the whale shuts down only half of its brain, along with the opposite eye. The other half of the brain stays awake at a low level of alertness. This attentive side signals when to rise to the surface for a fresh breath of air. After approximately two hours, the animal will reverse this process, resting the active side of the brain and awaking the rested half. This pattern is called catnapping.

Humans, of course, can breathe while the conscious mind is asleep; our subconscious mechanisms have control of this involuntary system-there is no need to think about each breath. With a voluntary respiratory system, whales must be constantly alert to trigger the next breath.

The Human Brain

  • Reptilian Brain/brain stem (Body)

  • Limbic System (Emotions)

  • Neocortex (Mind)

The “Triune Brain” model was developed by Paul MacLean in the 1950’s. He proposed that the human brain is really three brains in one. Though the three brains do interact substantially, each part is equipped for specific functions and has its area of specialisation. The Reptilian brain is made up by the brain stem and cerebellum. Its purpose is closely related to actual physical survival and maintenance of the body. Temperature regulation, breathing, sleep, hunger and thirst are regulated here. The Limbic system is made up by the amygdala and hippocampus. It is where emotions are generated, memories are stored, and smell and taste perception take place. It is concerned with the wellbeing of a person. The Neocortex is where conscious thought happens. It is also known as the cerebral cortex, and controls thinking skills, reason, and speech.

As indicated in the picture above, we would typically refer to the reptilian part of our brain as the body. That is the part we need to pay attention to when we are encouraged to “listen to the body”. The Limbic system what we usually call our emotions, or our heart or soul. When admonished to “think with your head and not with your heart” we could also say, “engage your neocortex and not your limbic system when you make this decision”.

Hunger and thirst are regulated by the reptilian part of our brain. Just as breathing is. Breathing in humans, is not a conscious thing as it is in whales- when our need for oxygen increases, like when we walk up a flight of stairs, we automatically start taking deeper breaths at a more rapid rate. When we lie down to sleep, we don’t need as much oxygen, and our breathing slows down all by itself, adjusting to our decreased need. We do not have to think about it.

Similarly, when our energy need is increased or decreased, our appetite will correspondingly increase or decrease, guiding our eating to match our needs. This is also not something that we need to think about…but many people spend a whole lot of time and energy thinking about this.

Why is that?

The great thinkers of the scientific revolution, the most prominent being Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, and Francis Bacon, introduced the view of the universe as a mechanical system.

This worldview provided the basis for the biomedical model, in which the body is seen as a “finely calibrated combustion engine” for which scientist can make recommendations about exactly how many calories and nutrients are needed for health and efficiency. The mind can understand the body’s needs, and therefore it can control it and no longer needs its input.

The reptilian part of the brain is seen as lower-level functioning, something we share with animals, too archaic and primitive for the scientific, clever, evolved human. While it may be true that the mind can fairly accurately predict and anticipate the body’s needs and calculate the right amount of food to eat etc. the consequences of trying to do it that way, is that we must engage our mind to make decisions about something that really ought to be automatic. What a waste of our thinking power!

Like the poor whales that can never go to sleep, always keeping a part of their conscious mind alert, a person that regulates their eating with their mind, as opposed to their body, also has to be on guard at all times.

Give the regulation back to the body- it is designed to do so effortlessly and discover how wonderful it is to be free to think about other things!

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