As is often the case, an elaborate scientific study must occur for scientists to better understand something that we all recognize with a “Duh?”. In this case, researchers from the University of Zurich devised an experiment to study how people (test subjects) come to prefer tasty foods over healthy foods while under some form of stress. If you are thinking what I am thinking, you are asking why did anyone spend time and money on this question. Just ask any number of stressed individuals whether they raid the freezer for ice cream or dig out some old fashioned chocolate when they are stressed out. We almost universally have experienced this phenomenon in our own lives.
Well, scientists want to do more than describe an event, it wants to explain the why and the how. We all want to understand why things happen even if we don’t go to the trouble of creating an experiment to find out. Scientists see a connection and want to understand the why not just for the sake of knowing, although that can be very satisfying itself. They also want to understand how to alter the event in a beneficial manner. Understanding what causes a disease and how it does so can lead to therapies of either treatment or prevention. This desire for benefit is good by itself as long as it does not devolve into an attempt to control nature like God does.
Enough of the philosophical argument, what did they discover? They took 51 men who were attempting to live a healthy lifestyle and tested their food preferences with and without a specific stressful event. The stress involved holding one’s hand in a bucket of ice water as long as they could. Preferences between healthy and “tasty” food was then measured. To no one’s surprise, they found that taste preferences shifted towards foods generally considered tasty when they were under this stress.
This discovery was not shocking, but in their attempts to understand the process, the researchers performed functional MRI scans on the test subjects brains during the experiment. The stress changed activity in different parts of the brain. Areas involved in processing taste increased while those areas involved in long term planning diminished. For those subjects who had felt more stress (seen in higher cortisol levels), their desire for “tasty” food increased. Of course, this is considered as a fingerprint of evolution in which stressed animals would pursue taste over long term goals during stressful experiences.
Worldview obviously affects interpretation. When one pursues belief in evolution, this conclusion is inevitable. However, another “food” related question comes to mind and points to a Biblical view of mankind. Which is first, the chicken or the egg is an age old question? In this situation, do the brain activity changes reflect the cause of the taste preference or are we seeing effects? Is the person wanting tasty food because these brain changes are occurring or are the brain changes occurring because we want tasty food? An honest scientist would admit lack of knowledge here. An astute and practical theologian can agree, but can add that this provides evidence for the interconnectedness of mankind’s physical and spiritual being.
So the next time you are stressed out and headed to the freezer for the chocolate ice cream, stop and ask yourself why? Yes, your hormones and your chemistry affect your behavior, but does that really change who is eating the ice cream?
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