The Agricultural Mind

Let me make an argument about individualism, rigid egoic boundaries, and hence Jaynesian consciousness. But I’ll come at it from a less typical angle. I’ve been reading much about diet, nutrition, and health. There are significant links between what we eat and so much else: gut health, hormonal regulation, immune system, and neurocognitive functioning. There are multiple pathways, one of which is direct, connecting the gut and the brain. The gut is sometimes called the second brain, but in evolutionary terms it is the first brain. To demonstrate one example of a connection, many are beginning to refer to Alzheimer’s as type 3 diabetes, and dietary interventions have reversed symptoms in clinical studies. Also, microbes and parasites have been shown to influence our neurocognition and psychology, even altering personality traits and behavior (e.g., toxoplasma gondii).

One possibility to consider is the role of exorphins that are addictive and can be blocked in the same way as opioids. Exorphin, in fact, means external morphine-like substance, in the way that endorphin means indwelling morphine-like substance. Exorphins are found in milk and wheat. Milk, in particular, stands out. Even though exorphins are found in other foods, it’s been argued that they are insignificant because they theoretically can’t pass through the gut barrier, much less the blood-brain barrier. Yet exorphins have been measured elsewhere in the human body. One explanation is gut permeability that can be caused by many factors such as stress but also by milk. The purpose of milk is to get nutrients into the calf and this is done by widening the space in gut surface to allow more nutrients through the protective barrier. Exorphins get in as well and create a pleasurable experience to motivate the calf to drink more. Along with exorphins, grains and dairy also contain dopaminergic peptides, and dopamine is the other major addictive substance. It feels good to consume dairy as with wheat, whether you’re a calf or a human, and so one wants more.

Addiction, of food or drugs or anything else, is a powerful force. And it is complex in what it affects, not only physiologically and psychologically but also on a social level. Johann Hari offers a great analysis in Chasing the Scream. He makes the case that addiction is largely about isolation and that the addict is the ultimate individual. It stands out to me that addiction and addictive substances have increased over civilization. Growing of poppies, sugar, etc came later on in civilization, as did the production of beer and wine (by the way, alcohol releases endorphins, sugar causes a serotonin high, and both activate the hedonic pathway). Also, grain and dairy were slow to catch on, as a large part of the diet. Until recent centuries, most populations remained dependent on animal foods, including wild game. Americans, for example, ate large amounts of meat, butter, and lard from the colonial era through the 19th century. In 1900, Americans on average were only getting 10% of carbs as part of their diet and sugar was minimal.

Another factor to consider is that low-carb diets can alter how the body and brain functions. That is even more true if combined with intermittent fasting and restricted eating times that would have been more common in the past. Taken together, earlier humans would have spent more time in ketosis (fat-burning mode, as opposed to glucose-burning) which dramatically affects human biology. The further one goes back in history the greater amount of time people probably spent in ketosis. One difference with ketosis is cravings and food addictions disappear. It’s a non-addictive or maybe even anti-addictive state of mind. Many hunter-gatherer tribes can go days without eating and it doesn’t appear to bother them, and that is typical of ketosis. This was also observed of Mongol warriors who could ride and fight for days on end without tiring or needing to stop for food. What is also different about hunter-gatherers and similar traditional societies is how communal they are or were and how more expansive their identities in belonging to a group. Anthropological research shows how hunter-gatherers often have a sense of personal space that extends into the environment around them. What if that isn’t merely cultural but something to do with how their bodies and brains operate? Maybe diet even plays a role. Hold that thought for a moment.

Now go back to the two staples of the modern diet, grains and dairy. Besides exorphins and dopaminergic substances, they also have high levels of glutamate, as part of gluten and casein respectively. Dr. Katherine Reid is a biochemist whose daughter was diagnosed with autism and it was severe. She went into research mode and experimented with supplementation and then diet. Many things seemed to help, but the greatest result came from restriction of glutamate, a difficult challenge as it is a common food additive. This requires going on a largely whole foods diet, that is to say eliminating processed foods. But when dealing with a serious issue, it is worth the effort. Dr. Reid’s daughter showed immense improvement to such a degree that she was kicked out of the special needs school. After being on this diet for a while, she socialized and communicated normally like any other child, something she was previously incapable of. Keep in mind that glutamate is necessary as a foundational neurotransmitter in modulating communication between the gut and brain. But typically we only get small amounts of it, as opposed to the large doses found in the modern diet.

That reminds me of propionate. It is another substance normally taken in at a low level. Certain foods, including grains and dairy, contain it. The problem is that, as a useful preservative, it has been generously added to the food supply. Research on rodents shows injecting them with propionate causes autistic-like behaviors. And other rodent studies show how this stunts learning ability and causes repetitive behavior (both related to the autistic demand for the familiar), as too much propionate entrenches mental patterns through the mechanism that gut microbes use to communicate to the brain how to return to a needed food source. Autistics, along with cravings for propionate-containing foods, tend to have larger populations of a particular gut microbe that produces propionate. In killing microbes, this might be why antibiotics can help with autism.

As with proprionate, exorphins injected into rats will likewise elicit autistic-like behaviors. By two different pathways, the body produces exorphins and proprionate from the consumption of grains and dairy, the former from the breakdown of proteins and the latter produced by gut bacteria in the breakdown of some grains and refined carbohydrates (combined with the proprionate used as a food additive; added to other foods as well and also, at least in rodents, artificial sweeteners increase propionate levels). This is part of the explanation for why many autistics have responded well to low-carb ketosis, specifically paleo diets that restrict both wheat and dairy, but ketones themselves play a role in using the same transporters as propionate and so block their buildup in cells and, of course, ketones offer a different energy source for cells as a replacement for glucose which alters how cells function, specifically neurocognitive functioning and its attendant psychological effects.

What stands out to me about autism is how isolating it is. The repetitive behavior and focus on objects resonates with extreme addiction. Both conditions block normal human relating and create an obsessive mindset that, in the most most extreme forms, blocks out all else. I wonder if all of us moderns are simply expressing milder varieties of this biological and neurological phenomenon. And this might be the underpinning of our hyper-individualistic society, with the earliest precursors showing up in the Axial Age following what Julian Jaynes hypothesized as the breakdown of the much more other-oriented bicameral mind. What if our egoic individuality is the result of our food system, as part of the civilizational project of mass agriculture?

5 thoughts on “The Agricultural Mind

    • This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. I began making some of the connections around a half year ago.

      There is a longer version of this post I’ve been working on for months and I plan on eventually finishing it, but I won’t get back to it right away. In that longer piece, I offer a lot more data along with quotes and references. It’s one of those doozies I occasionally put out when I get into obsessive mode.

      The reason I put out this short summary is because I came across some new info, about glutamates. I decided to give a basic account of the main evidence. It’s a small taste of what I’ll eventually publish.

  1. The argument in this post is part of a larger argument I’ve been formulating. A key component of it is Julian Jaynes’ linking the rise of authoritarianism with the rise of individualism. Only individuals need or make possible an authoritarian leader to enforce social control. There are other factors as well.

    The first permanent structures and later settlements weren’t built by agriculturalists. Civilization, at this basic level, preceded what we would later come to identify with civilization. Those early hunter-gatherers began settling down out of convenience, such as a plethora of local food sources. The development of agriculture came somewhat by accident, the result of staying in one place long enough. But once it took hold, the population in question eventually became dependent on this new food, although that dependence took millennia to come to our present state of extreme dependence. This happens through what is called path dependence where initial conditions are compounded and so, over time, it becomes ever more difficult to change course.

    What cemented this new agricultural order more than anything was when grain became more central. There is a reason all the greatest empires were built on grain fields, not built on potato patches, fruit groves or cattle ranching. As James C. Scott points out in Against the Grain, there is something unique about grains. They are grown in large fields that are impossible to hide from officials or move to a new location, easy to measure for purposes of legibility, and hence useful for accounting and taxation. These are the characteristics needed for maintaining and funding large, centralized governments. It also might not be accidental that mass agriculture came to focus so much on the foods I describe that have such a powerful impact on neurocognition, psychology, and social relations. Isolated individuals are necessary in this kind of society, but once these individuals are socially constructed it becomes impossible to imagine anything else and, because of path dependence, any attempts at change become almost inevitably doomed to failure.

    The food system tells us a lot about a society. So much comes down to what we eat and how it effects us. It is unsurprising, in a society like ours, to see plutocrats, technocrats, and bureaucrats who wish to impose their views from above. And it is particularly unsurprising that one of their main focuses of social control is by way of controlling the food system, often by controlling the ideological rhetoric of dietary recommendations and edicts (from Food Pyramid to EAT-Lancet). This is how we end up with corporatism/corporatocracy.

  2. Maybe I should mention that, as often is the case, this post has a tinge of the personal to it. I was diagnosed with learning disability as a child, in that my brain didn’t work in the way did the brains of ‘normal’ kids. I knew I wasn’t normal and it also related to behavioral issues. It was frustrating, to say the least, and the adult figures in my life were less than helpful, despite their good intentions.

    This caused major problems in school and early on I developed depression as well, although depression wasn’t diagnosed until after a suicide attempt later on. Since I’ve gained knowledge and perspective with age, I suspect I’m also somewhat on the autism spectrum and so that would have been another undiagnosed issue in childhood, as it was largely unknown back then. It occurs to me now that all of these neurocognitive and behavioral issues might be related, in fact might be symptoms of the same underlying cause of set of contributing factors.

    It isn’t hard for me to make the connection to diet. My mother tried to feed us well, according to what was deemed healthy at the time, but knowledge wasn’t that great. She gave us skim milk, whole wheat bread, and there was a vegetable every night at dinner. Also, she didn’t buy a lot of sugary foods and snack foods, although the house nonetheless was filled with high-carb processed foods, and as I had my own money from a paper route I regularly bought candy and junk food. Looking back, it is obvious I was addicted to carbs and sugar, remaining addicted until finally beginning my struggle with it in my 30s which is long after my brain, nervous system, etc was fully developed.

    Since changing my diet, there has been clear changes in how I feel and my mind functions. It isn’t dramatic but it is undeniable. I just feel better in a general sense. My energy and stamina is greater. My mood is improved without the low periods I used to get. Others have made similar observations about changes with a diet that is some combination of low-carb, wheat-free, dairy-free, and additive-free. In some cases, serious autoimmune and neurocognitive conditions were reversed. This anecdotal evidence appears supported by the scientific evidence going back almost a century. Here is a study done on ketosis back in 1925:

    The Ketogenic Diet In Epilepsy by M. G. Peterman, M.D.

    “The mental development has been normal in all patients, and exceptionally good in seven of the twenty who are now free from attacks. In all the children treated with the ketogenic diet there was a marked change in character, concomitant with the ketosis, a decrease in irritability, and an increased interest and alertness; the children slept better and were more easily disciplined. This action of the diet warrants further study.”

    After drugs were discovered to treat epilepsy and diabetes, almost all research into ketosis ended. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that it regained the attention of scientists.

    • There are other things I could add. In infancy, I had a milk allergy. In kindergarten, I had trouble in school. In 1st grade, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. And in third grade, I wasn’t doing homework also around the time, with my own paper route money to buy my own junk food and candy, that my carb and sugar addiction began. In 5th grade, I got glasses.

      Then in 7th grade, I was severely frustrated and lonely, played hooky for the first time, began seeing a school therapist who blamed me rather than helped me (saw me as an undisciplined recalcitrant bad kid), still wasn’t doing homework that almost led me to flunking out, and was constantly lying (all combined being the first obvious signs of depression). In 11th grade, my art teacher asked if I was depressed, but I said I wasn’t because I didn’t know what depression was. And then a year after high school, I attempted suicide and finally was diagnosed with depression.

      During all that time, starting in childhood, I was always socially oblivious and often content to be by myself. I now suspect mild autism. It would also relate to the learning and school issues. But what if it was also related to diet?

      Even when my mother tried to feed us well, she still gave us a lot high-carb processed foods: commercial wheat breads, instant potatoes, cereal, skim milk (pasteurized, homogenized, depleted of fat-soluble vitamins that can’t be used without fat), etc. As best as my mom tried in her limited knowledge based on bad expert advice and official recommendations, it was a truly horrible diet. Combined with what I was buying as snacks, it would be shocking if I didn’t have major neurocognitive and behavioral issues.

      Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that rates of childhood depression, suicide, and criminality shot up with my generation. And maybe it wasn’t only because lead toxicity had worsened during our childhoods.

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