By integrating neuroscience research with new approaches to food design it will be possible to create products that both improve the health and sustainability of our food systems as well as impactfully improve the cognitive health of the end user.

The last two decades have witnessed a veritable revolution in the field of neuroscience that has highlighted the centrality of the body to higher order cognitive processes such as creativity. Where previously thinking, rationality, learning, memory, and even the sense of self were thought to be the sole provenance of the brain, new research has turned this thinking on its head as information about the physiological state of the body has been shown to be of critical importance to even the most complex cognition1.

An excellent illustration of this is the observation of so-called sickness behaviours: patients fighting infection or other illness are often observed to experience extreme fatigue and overall lethargy as their affliction runs its course2. This observation is now thought to be an adaptive response whereby their central nervous system recognizes the reduced capacity of their body to act and accordingly alters their affective state – i.e., the way that they feel – to bias them towards behaviours that are conducive to feeling better3. The logic being that if one feels fatigued, they will be more likely to reserve their energy for recovery and healing.

In this way, the way that one feels (one’s affective state) is now understood to be a direct reflection of the physiological state of one’s body1, 4. This physiological state information is then used by the central nervous system in various ways to structure behaviour, all with the primary goal of maintaining one’s physiological health over time5.

While affectively driven motivational alterations are one way in which the central nervous system can drive behaviour, other more subtle means can also be employed: for example, the manipulation of one’s perception of reality.

In a 2009 study6, researchers instructed subjects to refrain from eating for several hours after which time they were to meet at the bottom of a large hill. Once at the bottom, the subjects were divided into two groups - one group received a nutritive beverage while the other received water with artificial sweetener - and were then asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Previous studies have examined the impact of food deprivation on affective state and found, unsurprisingly to anyone who has had to wait an extended period for a restaurant reservation, that restricting food intake makes people feel bad7.

But the hill researchers discovered something else: when the food deprived/suboptimal physiological state group looked up at the hill, they estimated it as being significantly steeper than did the non-food deprived group – they saw the hill as steeper than the other group. One interpretation is that by failing to provide their bodies with useable energy prior to the task, their cognitive systems literally altered their experience of reality to reflect their body’s current capabilities, and by doing so, effectively biased their behaviour towards actions that were more manageable – i.e., choosing not to climb up the very steep hill.

And this makes sense. From the perspective of a cognitive system whose central goal is to keep itself alive and fit, changing one’s perception of reality such that one is biased towards behaviours that match one’s present energetic capabilities is a good idea as it effectively allows the system to keep its behaviour within a safe range designed to prolong life. If one is sick and has less energy available, the range is reduced. If instead one is well and full of nutritive energy, the range expands.

Which brings us to creativity.

Like most higher order cognitive processes, engaging in creative tasks is immensely energetically demanding8, as anyone within a creative profession can tell you. Supporting creative thought and other high level cognitive tasks are a primary contributor to the brain’s large energy appetite: it consumes about 20% of the energy produced by the body yet represents only about 2% of body weight9. In a certain sense, then, engaging in a creatively demanding task can be thought of as analogous to climbing a long and steep hill. As such, it would therefore make sense that one’s ability to engage in creative tasks would be related to one’s current energetic capabilities, and unsurprisingly, that is indeed what research has found.

Various studies have uncovered strong correlations between subject’s affective state (which, recall, is a reflection of one’s energetic state3), and their ability to engage in creative tasks10. Across studies, the most consistent finding was that induced positive affect (improved physiological state) leads to increased levels of creativity and dimensions of performance that are related to creativity such as exploring alternate solutions and making unusual associations10.

What this implies then is that by intervening to induce positive affect (e.g., by improving physiological state through ingestion of needed nutrients), it should be possible to improve one’s capability to engage in creative tasks and other cognitively demanding activities. In fact, some preliminary studies have investigated this with promising results 11, 12. In particular, nutrients such as omega 3, flavonoids, and certain vitamins and minerals have shown significant promise towards improving cognitive function11.

The Future of Food Design

As the above evidence indicates, the food that we eat is of immense importance to not only our physiological health, but also for our everyday cognitive functioning. There is therefore a compelling opportunity for this novel research to be integrated into the field of Food Design with the aim of creating food products that promote both systemic physiological and cognitive health. While much of the research in this novel area is preliminary, there is nonetheless good evidence that food products can be designed in innovative ways to address cognitive health use cases.

Further, by integrating this research with other new approaches to food design – e.g., frameworks that seek to address sustainability and circularity13 – it will be possible to create products that aim to both improve the health and sustainability of our food systems, as well as more impactfully improve the health of the end user.

 

References

  1. Quigley, K. S., Kanoski, S., Grill, W. M., Barrett, L. F., & Tsakiris, M. (2021). Functions of interoception: From energy regulation to experience of the self. Trends in neurosciences44(1), 29-38.

  2. Kelley, K. W., Bluthé, R. M., Dantzer, R., Zhou, J. H., Shen, W. H., Johnson, R. W., & Broussard, S. R. (2003). Cytokine-induced sickness behavior. Brain, behavior, and immunity17(1), 112-118.

  3. Barrett, L. F., Quigley, K. S., & Hamilton, P. (2016). An active inference theory of allostasis and interoception in depression. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences371(1708), 20160011.

  4. Craig, A. D. (2002). How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nature reviews neuroscience3(8), 655-666.

  5. Schulkin, J., & Sterling, P. (2019). Allostasis: a brain-centered, predictive mode of physiological regulation. Trends in neurosciences42(10), 740-752.

  6. Schnall, S., Zadra, J. R., & Proffitt, D. R. (2010). Direct evidence for the economy of action: Glucose and the perception of geographical slant. Perception39(4), 464-482.

  7. Herbert, B. M., Herbert, C., Pollatos, O., Weimer, K., Enck, P., Sauer, H., & Zipfel, S. (2012). Effects of short-term food deprivation on interoceptive awareness, feelings and autonomic cardiac activity. Biological psychology89(1), 71-79.

  8. Ampel, B. C., Muraven, M., & McNay, E. C. (2018). Mental work requires physical energy: Self-control is neither exception nor exceptional. Frontiers in psychology, 1005.

  9. Raichle, M. E., & Gusnard, D. A. (2002). Appraising the brain's energy budget. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences99(16), 10237-10239.

  10. Amabile, T. M., & Pratt, M. G. (2016). The dynamic componential model of creativity and innovation in organizations: Making progress, making meaning. Research in organizational behavior36, 157-183.

  11. Gómez-Pinilla, F. (2008). Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature reviews neuroscience9(7), 568-578.

  12. Kennedy, D. O., Wightman, E. L., Forster, J., Khan, J., Haskell-Ramsay, C. F., & Jackson, P. A. (2017). Cognitive and mood effects of a nutrient enriched breakfast bar in healthy adults: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel groups study. Nutrients9(12), 1332.

  13. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The big food redesign: Regenerating nature with the circular economy (2021)