Your Brain on Food—How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings
by Gary L. Wenk. Oxford University Press, 2010
Nutmeg induces LSD-like hallucinations. That is, if you eat an entire container in one sitting, according to neuroscientist Gary L. Wenk in his book Your Brain on Food. He also explains why we crave chocolate—it contains fats that cause our bodies to release mood-enhancing chemicals—and why coffee may be good for us: drinking five to six cups a day may prevent Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.
But if you’re hoping the book will live up to its title and explain how a range of foods alters your brain, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Wenk spends very little time discussing food beyond these brief mentions of spices, coffee and chocolate. Instead he focuses almost exclusively on how the brain responds to drugs.
If you can get over the misleading title, the book makes for an interesting read. Wenk describes how cocaine, marijuana and LSD alter the flow of brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. Wenk explains, for example, that the brain’s response to marijuana may alter as we age. In the young brain, marijuana impairs the ability to retain memories because of the chemical THC. THC binds to and activates specific neuronal receptors that control memory and concentration. But studies suggest that as we age, the drug may actually have the reverse effect, helping the brain preserve memories. Although Wenk does not describe the precise reason why, he suggests that the drug reduces inflammation and possibly even stimulates new brain cells to form.
Wenk also links mind-altering drugs to spirituality. In ancient times, religious leaders regularly used hallucinogenic plants in an attempt to communicate with the gods. Recent studies suggest these plants cause hallucinations because they reduce serotonin sensitivity, causing the brain to become overloaded with sensory information. This confusion can create the sensation that one is floating in space or communicating with a higher power. To support this idea, several studies have even shown that people whose brains contain a low number of a type of serotonin receptor tend to be more religious.
Tidbits such as this keep Wenk’s journey through your brain intriguing and highlight how easy it is for the chemicals we ingest and those we produce naturally to modify the way we think, feel and act.