Ancient Brain in a Modern World

One thing I hear often, and am always a little surprised by, is that my clients think they’re the only ones who struggle so much with food. Are you one of those who see your overeating as a personal shortcoming, a private torment, unique to you?

Surely it’s self-evident that the overwhelming majority of the so-called developed world is overeating, given the problem of weight in our culture and the massive (pun intended!) dieting industry. Even those who manage to keep to what is regarded as a healthy weight often have a troubled relationship with food. I know this because some attend my seminars; addictive overeating is often a weight problem, but not always.

Research has shown that every addiction works through what is a perfectly normal and natural reward system located deep inside our brains. This reward system evolved (or was designed, as many believe) to encourage us to seek out things that bring us pleasure, so that we will repeat these behaviours and, as a result, survive. When we lived in caves or mud huts it was essential that food had rewarding properties; that we had a drive powerful enough to get us out to hunt and forage for our next meal. (1)

As a general principle, over many generations, those who didn’t have that drive didn’t survive the next famine and didn’t pass on their genes. Thus the gene pool came to favour those who love to eat. We now live with this strong, biochemical influence inside us, urging us to reward ourselves at any opportunity. Dopamine release in the midbrain creates our experience of desire; the release of opioid peptides creates our experience of pleasure while we eat. (2)

Unfortunately for us, though, our cave-dweller brains are about as suited to our current culture as going off to the office in a leopard-skin loincloth. Our clothing has evolved over the centuries; our brains haven’t.

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