Book Review: The Omnivorous Mind
by John S. Allen
Harvard University Press, 2012
“We eat with our brains,” John S. Allen asserts early on in his lively, winning new book The Omnivorous Mind, and he proceeds to take readers on an utterly fascinating tour of just how that is. Allen is a neuroscience researcher at USC and one suspects the poor thing is acquainted with more than his fair share of foodies – although saying this is a book about how such creatures got the way they are would be considerably selling it short. Allen’s central contention is that the human mind has always played a decisive, landscaping role in human eating habits, both picky and general.
But picky necessarily comes into it, especially since large portions of mankind live in an age of food-superabundance the likes of which collected history would gawp at:
If we could go back in time and survey all of our ancestors over the past 6 million years, asking them, “What will be the biggest problem our species might face in the future?” it is highly unlikely that very many of them would respond with “Too much food.” It is truly extraordinary that billions of people today live in an environment of ongoing caloric plenty (while, of course, billions of others do not), and hundreds of millions of them are apparently suffering for it. There is a mismatch between the human body and the present-day food environment, and that mismatch is mediated by the mind.
A recurring problem-note in this book is that parenthetical “while, of course, billions of others do not” – it’s not sounded cavalierly (nobody with Allen’s knowledge of food could be unaware of the vast amounts of misery its shortage or absence causes every day throughout the world), but it perhaps shouldn’t have been sounded at all, especially in a book that can’t help but focus on the superabundance. The tic of it – like the hasty genuflection of a lapsed Catholic – is easily the most annoying thing about foodies themselves, their way of attempting to deflect the obvious criticism that two people in button-down plaid shirts and hornrim glasses who spend 35 minutes at Whole Foods debating the relative merits of green or purple kale are, in fact, abominations in a world where entire countries are starving.
The Omnivorous Mind isn’t a book about the fact that most of the humans in the world go to bed hungry every day – it’s about the ones who don’t, and what they eat, and why they eat it. It’s about what eating is, cognitively, for those who do it more or less recreationally.
Any fan of food will agree that the anticipation of satiation can be the summation of gratification – and as it happens, that anticipation has a denomination: prospective memory. This is the construction and retention of sensations and experiences and even priorities that haven’t happened yet. Allen not only maps out how juggling prospective memories works in the human brain, he also suggests that those workings helped to make the human brain:
The demands food and cooking make on prospective memory expand when an individual collects and prepares food not just for him-or herself but also for a partner, children, extended family, or a social group. The demands of several hungers must be anticipated and met. In other primates, planning about food acquisition is never more complex than a mother having to find enough food for herself and one dependent offspring. This kind of feeding depends on memory about food sources but really does not require prospective planning.
There’s just a whiff of Berkeley about this still; if Allen really thinks that mother ‘primate’s food-planning demands are as simple as he characterizes them here, he really needs to brush up on his natural history before he sits down to dinner with the nearest troop of gorillas and accidentally makes a faux pas that gets him frowned at, or urinated upon, or disembowelled, or all three.
Still, his point is well-taken: humankind’s obsessiveness about the future has certainly shaped the human brain in the present, for good or ill. We anticipate in detail not only the steps we need to take in order to make a big meal (especially one we’re serving to other humans) but how that big meal will taste, and be received. Thousands of generations of people doing all that anticipating are bound to draw and re-draw not only our very conception of food but also our very ability to conceive food. Allen’s explorations of these subtleties are just some of the highlights of this book, which will appeal to both the most finicky foodies and the other end of the spectrum (perhaps even so low as those weird, sad people who are so overjoyed by their dogs’ happiness at receiving a doggie treat that they’ve been known to nibble on such a treat themselves and feel no shame).
Another thing that will appeal is Allen’s upbeat optimism, the tone of genial conversation that’s sustained throughout. The subject of food-in-the-world might warrant that tone less than almost any other subject Allen could readily have chosen, but the tone is enjoyable just the same, and the book’s final note is a wish, however hard to achieve, for something approaching gastronomic harmony:
Anyone lucky enough to have access to a ready and varied supply of vegetables, fruits, meats, grains, seafoods, nuts, and whatever else should celebrate that good fortune. The best way – the most human way – to do so would be to plan and prepare a nice meal and share it with family and friends.