The evolution of human memory

Like all biological traits, human memory reflects a long evolutionary history, most of it shared with other animals. Yet, with rare exceptions, evolution has either been overlooked in discussions of memory or treated in an outdated way. As a result, a simple idea about the cerebral cortex has reigned for more than a century: that its various areas specialize in functions characterized as memory, perception, the control of movement, or executive control (mainly decision-making). By taking a contemporary view of brain evolution into account, however, it’s clear that the brain simply doesn’t work this way. Instead, evolution has led to different parts of the cortex specializing in distinct kinds of neural representations, many of which evolved during major evolutionary transitions. Representations, in this sense, correspond to the information processed and stored by a network of neurons, and they underpin our memories as well as our ability to perceive the world and control our actions.

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Read also: The Evolution of Memory Systems: Ancestors, Anatomy, and Adaptations

Posted in Evolution, Humans, Memory | Tagged , ,

Reclaiming the Family Table: Mealtimes and Child Health and Wellbeing

While lasting only twenty minutes, on average, family mealtimes are embedded in a social, cultural, and economic context that are associated with a variety of indicators of children’s health and wellbeing. Shared family mealtimes have been associated with such diverse outcomes as reduced risk for substance abuse, promotion of language development, academic achievement, and reduced risk for pediatric obesity. This social policy report provides a brief overview of current research suggesting that frequency of family mealtimes, family climate during shared mealtimes, environmental and policy influences on family food choice are related directly and indirectly to children’s health and wellbeing.

The report is divided into five sections. The first addresses frequency effects of shared  family mealtimes and relations to child health and wellbeing indicators. The second section addresses family climate during shared family mealtimes. This section examines the role that family interaction patterns, dining in or outside the home, and the effects of having
the television on during mealtimes plays in relation to child outcomes of interest. The third section addresses parents as gatekeepers of the family table. This section considers the role of food marketing and parent versus child decision making about food in relation to shared mealtimes. The fourth section examines briefly  the topic of food accessibility including food insecurity and time scarcity and associated influences on family mealtimes. The final section concludes with six policy recommendations for decision makers and community opinion leaders.

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Posted in Conversations, Family, Food, Parenting | Tagged , , ,

Science says: Eat with your Kids

As a family therapist, I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me. And 20 years of research in North America, Europe and Australia back up my enthusiasm for family dinners. It turns out that sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit. And that nightly dinner doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal that took three hours to cook, nor does it need to be made with organic arugula and heirloom parsnips. For starters, researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily. Older children also reap intellectual benefits from family dinners. For school-age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art. Other researchers reported a consistent association between family dinner frequency and teen academic performance. Adolescents who ate family meals 5 to 7 times a week were twice as likely to get A’s in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than two times a week.

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Posted in Conversations, Food, Parenting | Tagged , ,

Pleasure is Good: How French Children acquire a Taste for Life

In France, pleasure, or “plaisir,” is not a dirty word. It’s not considered hedonistic to pursue pleasure. Perhaps a better translation of the word is “enjoyment” or even “delight.” Pleasure, in fact, takes the weight of a moral value, because according to the French, pleasure serves as a compass guiding people in their actions. And parents begin teaching their children from very early childhood in a process called the education of taste, or “l’éducation du gout.”

The education of taste means teaching children to appreciate and savor the wide variety of flavors in the world and to eat properly at the table. In my eight months conducting research on French parenting in Paris, I found that the education of taste begins very early in families and is reinforced in daycare centers, where even two-year-olds are served formal, yet relaxed, four-course lunches with an appetizer, main course, cheese plate and dessert.

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Posted in Flavor, Food, Parenting, Taste | Tagged , , ,

Ancient Indian Flavors

The flavors and aromas of ancient Persia and India converge in Parsi cuisine. In this exclusive interview, Niloufer Mavalvala, author of The Art of Parsi Cooking: Reviving an Ancient Cuisine, introduces us to the culture and the tastes of the Parsis.

Prophet Zarathushtra Spitama lived in ancient Persia over 2,000 years ago, and the main keystones of his religion are “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” After the Arabs invaded Iran in the seventh century CE, many Zoroastrians fled religious persecution and sought refuge in India. The Indians referred to the newcomers as “Parsis” or “people from Pars,” implying that they were “Persian.” As part of the asylum agreement, the “Parsis” agreed to adopt the local language, dress and customs, thereby developing a unique cuisine that blended their traditional dishes with new spices, fruits and vegetables available in India, and later in Pakistan.

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Ancient Mesopotamia: Inventing and Reinventing Our World

Three successive civilizations — Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian — flourished along the “Fertile Crescent” in ancient Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Renown for their creativity, dynamism, and complexity, these cultures also provide the earliest models of civilization in the West. This fall, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Canada is celebrating the remarkable achievements and artistic sophistication of ancient Mesopotamia in a landmark exhibition: Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World. In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Clemens Reichel, Associate Curator at the ROM, about the importance of these civilizations, and of how we can better assess and understand their legacy in modern times.

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Tasty Ancient Recipes from Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning “between two rivers”) was an ancient region in the Near East, which corresponds roughly to present-day Iraq. Widely regarded as the “cradle of civilization,” Mesopotamia should be more properly understood as a region that produced multiple empires and civilizations rather than any single civilization. Iraqi cuisine, like its art and culture, is the sum of its varied and rich past. Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine, by independent scholar Nawal Nasrallah, offers more than 400 recipes from the distant past in addition to fascinating perspectives on the origins of Iraqi cuisine. In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE) speaks to Nawal Nasrallah about the research behind her unique, encyclopedic cookbook, the origins of Iraqi cuisine, and her passion for cooking ancient recipes.

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Posted in Ancient, Cuisine | Tagged ,