There are two current “hot topics” which interest me: obesity and the Internet. For the former, I’m not as interested in the actual condition as I am in (and have written about) its media representation: the endless claims about having discovered The Causes of and thereby The Solutions to this “epidemic”. As far as I can tell these are totally counterproductive for the simple reason that most of them lack nuance or the acknowledgement that there are obviously multiple causes. I mean yes, I think we can all agree on the main cause, which is that people eat too much, but the elusive question is why do “we” eat too much? Is it because we live in obesogenic/”toxic” environments? Is it because sugar and junk food are as addictive as heroin? Because we have fat friends? Perhaps it’s Nigella Lawson‘s fault, or Paula Deen‘s?
Who/whatever’s fault it is, the one “explanation” that keeps coming up is that we are simply hardwired to be gluttons. Cue a recent piece from The Telegraph:
‘We live in a fat society. That’s the real problem. Here in the greedy West, our entire society is behaving just like a fat person, shuffling towards an early grave, and trying very hard to remain in denial. Why are so many of us obese? Because we eat too much. Why do we eat too much? Because we’re genetically designed to live in hard times, so our metabolisms are built to crave calories. It’s why we survived as a species for all those millennia before we learnt to farm. Now, calories are not hard to find. We’ve discovered ways of delivering energy that are cheap, tasty and lucrative. It’s a perfect storm. Deep inside all of us, our Stone Age brains crave fat and sugar. Don’t worry, says the Fat Society – here it is!’
Right, so we’re genetically programmed to stuff our faces. Fair enough. Except that also means that those of us who are not obese are freaks of nature. Fine, I can live with that. But here’s where it gets interesting, and which brings me to the Internet and why I care about that (besides not being able to live without it). The big question here is some variation of whether Google is making us stupid, as Nicholas Carr famously posed the question that later became a book. Carr (and people like him) believe that the Internet affects us on a deep neurological level, ie. that it actually changes the structure of our brains and how we process information. Scare-mongering, risk-selling folk like Carr insist that the reason we should be worried is because of something called neuroplasticity, which is basically the brain’s capacity to change over time thanks to new environments, habits etc (cue the London cabbies who have bigger brains than the rest of us).
It’s a hot topic because the scientific jury is still out. Some, like (cognitive scientist) Stephen Pinker answer ‘not at all‘, while (neuroscientist) Joshua Greene adds that ‘The Internet hasn’t changed the way we think anymore than the microwave oven has changed the way we digest food‘. Being an evidence-based kinda gal, I’m going to stick with the science as it is, which when it comes to the Internet and what it might be doing to our brains is that there is no cause for panic (yet). Scientists are – for the most part – the level-headed folk, and for that we thank them.
Now I don’t know enough about neuroplasticity to weigh in on the debate, but it strikes me as rather interesting that the people shouting out about the biggest “risks” involved with the Internet (it will make you stupid), and obesity (it will get you) stand diametrically opposed on the issue of how much we are capable of (neurological/biological) change. If we really are programmed to eat like gluttons and are genetically powerless in the face of food, then surely that cancels out the possibility of neuroplasticity (ie. shouldn’t our clever brains have figured out that the feast or famine response is really not appropriate anymore?). If, on the other hand, our brains can change as fast as people like Carr claim, then the whole hardwired-to-be-fat scapegoat vanishes too, non?
Unless I’m missing something, someone, somewhere has missed a rather large logical gap. But hey, this gives us a couple of new options: if we can change, then the future will be full of stupid, thin people. If not, we’ll all be fat and clever.
Go on, have a(nother) brownie. You know you want one.