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Our Brains on Food & Other Tales of Modern Life

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This week on Tech Nation, I interviewed Dr. David Kessler, the former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and currently a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. He has spent the last seven years focusing on the content of American foods and asking why we are compelled to eat so many calories. No doubt you will be hearing and reading much about the triumvirate of salt, fat and sugar, but during the interview, he made one statement that clearly had applicability beyond his primary topic.

He said, "We are wired to focus on the most salient stimuli."

I couldn't help but think: "Oh, boy! Aren't we though!"

In Dr. K's case, he was describing how wheb he is in a certain place and circumstance, he is cued to go in, purchase, and eat a particular food. He has a very real fight with himself to try to keep on moving and physically put himself in a different place. He says it takes up all of his "working memory", all of his attention, all of his willpower ... but if he can just get him past that physical space, he can also get past the momentary desire to eat that food. In simple, matter-of-fact terms, Dr. Kessler explained the neuroscience of how our brain drives us - not our stomachs.

His overarching theme is that we Americans are ingesting large while invisible amounts of sugar, fat and salt, each time we eat out or consume a processed food, and this feeds our desire to eat more. At the same time, we are laying down tracks in our brains, so that just the simple circumstance can cue us. Eventually, we don't even need the presence of food to kick the cycle into full gear, and then we're on a mission to find it and eat it. Slaves of salt, fat and sugar ... that we can't even see and may not even know is there.

And that's where I got my own cue: You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know this applies to plenty of situations.

We have all experienced an overwhelming need to service a "most salient stimuli." At the most entrenched level, we may be under attack, or perceive that our children are in danger. On an everyday scale, we might think for a few seconds that we have lost our wallet, or are late for an important appointment. In the moment, nothing else is important. For each of us, circumstance is everything. A recovering alcoholic absentmindedly turns onto a street which is home to an old, favorite watering hole. A drug addict runs into a past acquaintance. A sex addict sees a provocative ad in a magazine. There are boundless cues everywhere and our entire emotional palette is ready to serve up triggers at any time. All emotions light up particular areas of our brains, and while one man's trigger is another man's ... well, nothing. There's no uniform set of cues. But once any of us is cued, it's off to the races. We focus solely on "the most salient stimuli", and when our brain is working against us, as in the case of addiction, it is a mighty opponent. Fighting it takes more than strength of character.

The good news here is that knowledge is power. As science tells us more and more about the behaviors of our powerful brains, we begin to understand the very nature of being human. But when we don't know who or what the opponent is, we are really in trouble. Our brains will drive us, while our conscious minds are powerless to intervene. And that's the case with hidden salt, fat and sugar.

In truth, the food industry has worked closely with us - yes, with us, the consumer - to find the most palatable and attractive foods we could possibly want. But who wants anything that's served up blindly? Or if transparent, ineffective in the circumstance. Case in point is providing nutritional breakdowns on the Internet. Actually grasping that Starbucks' Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino contains 18 teaspoons of sugar at the very moment you're gazing at the attractive picture promoting it - well, that speaks for itself

So, with all the triggers in the world, triggering everything under the sun, I think we should start with that feeling we get of suddenly focusing on "the most salient stimuli." We all know when we do it, and we need to question what caused it. Whether it's food or drugs or stress or being treated unfairly or even information overload, we need to figure out exactly what is driving us. Then we can ask the question only humans in modern times have needed to ask: Is this is natural part of life? Or it this manmade?

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