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Ice Cream on the Brain

September 02, 2003

Throughout history, even in the caves of Neanderthals, legend says children have maintained they are so full it would be impossible to swallow one more bite of mastodon spleen or even a single Green Giant pea. Yet, miraculously, seconds later, the same youngsters can profess discovery in their stomachs of a little-known dessert compartment, which is, by good fortune, quite available for filling with cookies, cake or ice cream. Parents suspicious of such timely, documentation-free claims should note now that, in fact, such a compartment has been found by British researchers. It's just not in the stomach; it's in the brain.

What these fiendish scientists at University College London did was, under the guise of computer training, teach subjects to associate a certain abstract screen image with ice cream and another image with peanut butter. Showing their evolutionary acumen for learning and remembering when it comes to acquiring food, within eight minutes, humans exposed to each image would start craving the matching treat. All of this was simultaneously monitored on brain scans. After consuming one craved food, its matching image no longer triggered craving, while desire for the other treat remained in force. Scientists call this "selective satiation," pinpointing its occurrence in the brain's orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala.

Normally, such big words prompt a reflexive turn to the comics. But this study might prompt useful research into modern American life, which many don't realize is so full of automatic reflexes. Say that at a drive-in your family car is surrounded by a gang on Harleys wearing leather garments and symbols once celebrated by a deceased German political party; most hungry drivers would feel a craving to eat elsewhere. Spotting a calendar open to September, many males will immediately check the TV remote batteries. And buy several six-packs of beer. When husbands hear a spouse say, "Honey, am I that fat?" evolution instructs them without thinking or looking to say, "No!" Seeing a woman head for the ladies' room, her female friends feel compelled to follow. A TV ad for a juicy hamburger, even if the sound is muted, will prompt viewers to yell, "When's dinner?" And check the beer supply.

A truck lumbering up a freeway entrance ramp causes every driver in the nearest lane to depress the gas pedal. The same increase in velocity occurs when a traffic light turns yellow. But no speed-up occurs at McDonald's even if suggested. When teenagers hear the words "Is your homework done?" reflex makes them answer "Yes." When that's followed by "Is it done well?" the youths will repeat the affirmative. Next, the British -- or Russians -- should examine if, say, ringing a bell causes dogs to feel famished. We'll wager that prospect has scientists drooling.

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