12 May 2011,

What do mobile phone charms, Mr. Jamster, and obesity have in common?

They are both ubiquitous and both consequences of a system that gets products into the hands of consumers as fast as possible. Capitalism.

If I were writing this article in 2006, we may be up in arms about how inconceivably naff bespoken mobile phone rings are, or how silly it is to spend $15.00 on a blinging Hello Kitty charm.
…But since I have also infused the conversation with one of the most politically charged topics on earth (no, not Mr. Jamster, but rather obesity), we might have to start to get serious.

Critics will content that obesity (and Mr. Jamster phone rings) illustrate All That is Wrong With Capitalism.

On the other hand, I would argue that 100,000,000 years of being in a state close to starvation has actually led us to create – some might say ingeniously- a food logistics system that allows us to eat whenever and wherever we want. Stop before you get angry: we’’ll get back to Jamster and phone charms in a minute.

Being hungry is painful and having access to food – if nothing else – is very pleasant. Letˊs give due credit where it’’s deserved: Planning a distribution system for food that is rewarding, nutritious (in the context that it provides nutrients), and cheap is an amazingly complex and even elegant achievement. Time travel back to 1930, and imagine explaining that you could have an Italian whipped coffee with a few flecks of chocolate at any time you pleased. You would be considered to be a member of an ultra posh exclusive circle of the Upper Class, or, in higher likelihood, a liar.

And so now comes in the cliché ‘Too Much of a Good Thing’, which could be a good analogy for the current reality that we all face. This adage to pleasure was thought up long before cognitive neuroscience ever came into play, but letˊs not believe our grandmotherˊs advice… fMRIˊs are way more fun!

Here’s a Coles Notes summary of neuroscience and feeding: Our hindbrains (specifically, the limbic system) convince us that we should be eating food all of the time. But not the green veggie type of food. The chocolate chips and ice cream kind of food. I didn’’t say this is rational: it’’s just how it is. And if you look at where the hindbrain is (basically linking the back of your brain with your spinal cord), you will note that itˊs pretty small in relation to our cortex. Many biologists call this the ‘reptilian hindbrain’.

Did you know that a reptile will sit out in the sun until it fries its organs? What we psychologists and economists call, ˊrational planningˊ is not a big priority for said reptiles. My husband was quick to correct me here:

ˊNo, a reptile usually suns itself until it almost fries itself, and then goes for shelter under a tree.ˊ
ˊWhat happens when the angles have changed, and there’’s no immediate shade?ˊ
ˊWell. Thatˊs not likely to happen, but OK – thereˊs not a lot of forward planning in the life of a gecko.ˊ

SO, a lot of pleasure, or rather, lots of experiencing of visceral things, but not a lot of forward – i.e. rational – planning.

When we eat delicious food, our reptilian hindbrain claps for joy. What happens is that we encode the place that we found the food, remember the sensation, and experience pure joy when the food is on our tongue. Nobody has propped open our mouths ‘Clockwork Orange Style’ to force feed us Ding Dongs with French Fry Sauce. Instead, a little reptile (ever so insidiously) has convinced us that ‘Please sir, can I have another’ (sort of the tagline of the musical, Oliver!) can be applied to doughnuts, French fries, and cake.

So, now we are faced with a terrible and crushing consequence of what happens when we eat too much: we all get too big.
Solving obesity, one would think, would require using the same forces that got us here in the first place – surely?

So here is the 167 billion dollar question: How are we going to turn this around?
Is rational planning going to help us in solving obesity? The kind where we are told exactly how many fruits and vegetables to eat? Where we are told simply: ‘Just exercise’ because it’s good for us? Our reptilian brains will glance over coolly and chuckle, almost knowingly -
‘”Yeah, yeah, yeah… got it… check. Veggies. Running. Will do. Sorry! Gotta go – peak sun hour’s ahead!’”

Or is exploiting our love for pleasure, and tying it with some kind of primitive drive and motivator a better way around all of this?
My bet is with the latter option, only because I’’ve been witness to the searing speed of capitalism. Mr. Jamster has a business (or rather, had a great business), because we also have an inherent need to be individual. To think we are special. To make ourselves stand out from one clan only to fit in with another.

Unfortunately, Mr. Jamster’’s numbers aren’’t looking nearly as attractive to the investor as they did in 2005 or even 2006. It’’s a fad that has passed, only because phones and their utility have now become something we take for granted. My 16-year-old niece shuddered sympathetically at my attempt to be ‘hip’ when I bought her something from Tiffany to stick on her phone.

We are all aware of the obesity crisis, and now, the other famous cliché, ‘Necessity is the Mother of All Invention’ should also start to ring true too.
…Not to exhaust Mr. Jamster’’s metaphor too forcefully, of course, but surely there has to be a way to make junk food look more like a blinging Hello Kitty charm, and low calorie fare more prevalent?

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