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The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food Hardcover – May 15, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


This book is a must-read for both the general public that loves food, but doesn't like the accompanying weight gain, and the specialized academic who must know why we love eating yet survive in an environment of feast rather than the famine that our evolutionary biology prepared us for. (Su Senapati The Journal of Ecocriticism 2013-07-01)

[Allen] crosses generic boundaries with his fluid writing style that combines the voice of the scientist, the food enthusiast, and the teacher into a highly readable volume. (Jennifer Jensen Wallach Quarterly Review of Biology 2014-06-01)

An original book presenting a wide-ranging set of hypotheses on the evolution and development of humankind's remarkable conceptualizations of and psychological orientation to food. (2015 W.W. Howells Book Award, Biological Anthropology Section of the American Anthropological Association)

John Allen combines evolution and modern biology to produce a feast of fresh ideas about our eating habits. The Omnivorous Mind is a fascinating reflection on the deep meanings of food. (Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human)

There's lots of terrific information about why we like crispy foods and how food drove evolution...[A] substantial tour of human history by way of the dinner plate. (Jesse Rhodes Smithsonian blog 2012-02-14)

Whether we're obsessing over intricate recipes or daydreaming about chocolate, our minds are often focused on food...Allen uses this mental gustation as a lens on our biological and cultural past, through anthropology, food history and the experience of chefs. The result is a banquet. Ranging over food cravings and aversions, cultural preferences and diets, he serves up plenty of amuse-bouches, not least an unusual take on the global love for the crispy and crunchy. (Nature 2012-04-05)

An authoritative...guide to the ways in which humans eat with their minds as much as their stomachs. This includes the relationship between food and memory, language and diets, and the importance of categorizing foodstuffs...Anyone curious about the human condition will welcome the diversity. (Catherine de Lange New Scientist 2012-04-28)

[Has] a refreshing emphasis on the physiological and evolutionary aspects of our relationship with food. Recommended for readers seeking a better understanding of their complex relationship with food and its biological and cultural significance. (Jon Bodnar Library Journal 2012-05-01)

[Allen's] lucid, careful examination of how we think about food (as well as how our brains receive input about food, whether we're actively cogitating about it or not) is a welcome addition to the growing bookshelf exploring the brain, about which we know more and more but never, somehow, enough. (Kate Tuttle Boston Globe 2012-05-13)

In The Omnivorous Mind [Allen] explores our biological equipment for taste and the ways in which each culture builds a unique cuisine upon a shared cognitive blueprint...Allen admirably conveys that our varied taste is both what makes us human and what marks each of us as an individual. (Leo Coleman Wall Street Journal 2012-05-20)

John S. Allen's The Omnivorous Mind is a clever and original take on how we think about food. Allen is a research scientist, which means that he's less interested in the cultural history of food--how the pickle migrated from Eastern Europe to New York, for example--than he is in hard appetite. Allen's approach involves the intriguing, if inconclusive, results that come from peering at brain scans and noticing which bits light up when we're asked to think about different foods. Some of his best conclusions involve mapping current food preferences onto the long march of evolutionary biology. (Kathryn Hughes Prospect 2012-05-01)

In The Omnivorous Mind, neuroscientist John Allen takes the long view of our eating habits, tracing their development through the evolution of our species. He expands on the increasingly widespread view that "the obesity epidemic that is occurring in developed countries throughout the world is ultimately a result of placing bodies and minds evolved for one environment in one that is wholly different." The emphasis here is on "minds," as Allen convincingly argues that our capacious brains have been profoundly shaped by the need to ensure a steady food supply. The reward pathways in our grey matter therefore compel us towards the sugariness that denotes ripe fruit or the fattiness of high-energy meat. But this system honed to extract the most calories from an unforgiving environment leads us badly astray when it is placed in a land of plenty. There is, however, hope. Our eating habits are rooted in our physiology but they are, nonetheless, also mediated by the culture in which we grow up. This is evident, for example, in the case of taboos, in which different cultures frown upon the consumption of some perfectly good foodstuffs, such as pork (as in Judaism or Islam), beef (in India) or insects (most of the western world). Allen astutely compares this to learning a mother tongue: we are all born hard-wired to acquire language, but which language we learn depends on our culture. Similarly, we are all born ready to acquire ideas of what counts as food and how to get it, but which food ideas we acquire depends on our upbringing. Applying this to the obesity problem, Allen argues we can shift our food culture towards a lower-calorie model, emphasizing more sophisticated pleasures than the salt/sugar/fat hit provided by a culture of pizza and ice-cream. This is like switching to a second language: it is not a simple decision but involves a great deal of effort and mental readjustment. Indeed, he claims, many diets fail because they underestimate just what a radical step it is for us to change these imprinted eating patterns. (Stephen Cave Financial Times 2012-06-15)

In this natural history of food, eating, and the mind, readers learn how cognition relates to the human experience of food and how eating shapes complex cognitive processes. (A. P. Boyar Choice 2012-11-01)

About the Author

John S. Allen is Research Scientist at Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (May 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674055721
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674055728
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #676,127 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

JOHN ALLEN is a neuroanthropologist and research scientist at the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. He is also a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington. For the past 15 years, his research has focused on human structural brain anatomy and the evolution of the brain. Prior to that, he conducted medical and cognitive anthropology field work in Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Palau. The author of several trade books and textbooks, he lives near Lexington, Kentucky.



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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
A mind blowing book! As the author of The Low Carb Revolution: Why the Secret to Losing Weight is to Fall Back in Love With Yourself! I have a deep understanding of how the body interacts with what we put into it, but John S. Allen has taken my thinking about food to a whole new dimension!

He brilliantly describes how we each build up our own internal Food Model, which helps us navigate the otherwise overwhelming complexity we face each day about what to eat and what not to eat. At the heart of any individual's food model lay our deepest memories of what and how we ate during our childhood. As we progress through life, our food model can either evolve--especially if we expose ourselves to new and different food models from other countries and cultures--or it can remain narrow and unfulfilling.

He shows again and again that for all the time we spend thinking about food, we never really "think" about it in any kind of meaningful way...but this book will certainly help change that!

John S. Allen also discusses how our mind must first rewrite our food model before we'll ever allow ourselves to explore new and different culinary options. I like to think of this internal model as our Food Map. Some people never foot outside their hometown in their entire lives--and so for them a map of the surrounding county or state would be of no particular value. But for those possessed of perhaps more wanderlust and curiosity, a map is indispensable to their travels. "The Omnivorous Mind" shows how the same concept applies to our willingness to "visit" new foods.
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Why is it that I like some foods at the very first bite, and dislike others, sometimes before I've even smelled them? As a practical matter, I've tried many different foods over my lifetime, often those that I "knew" I wouldn't like -- and often developed a taste for those initially repugnant foods. But that was more a matter of will power, of proving to myself that I was truly an omnivore, a person able to eat anything other people enjoyed.

That left me still with the basic question: why were there foods I "knew" I wouldn't like.

John Allen provides a fascinating answer: food is a matter of the mind, much more than a matter of our palate (our senses of smell and taste) or our stomachs. His analysis of how it all works made this book an absolute page turner for me.

Allen is a neuroanthropologist working at USC, trained in biological anthropology and author or co-author of:

The Lives of the Brain: Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind,

Biological Anthropology: The Natural History of Humankind,

Medical Anthropology: A Biocultural Approach.

Allen brings all of this learning to bear in helping me understand why it is that I like, or think I don't like, certain foods. Eating is directly connected to our brains; the choice of every meal, including the origins of taste and disgust, are fundamentally part of my cultural heritage, passed down for many generations. We also tend to "sexualize" food leading to what Allen calls the "foodgasm."

The foodgasm is an "euphoric, orgasm-like feeling one gets when eating the first bite of a much anticipated, delicious food. A foodgasm should not last too long: having one after each bite when eating a piece of cake would be strange.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book will make you think much harder about what, how, and why you eat. Excellent food for thought. I highly recommend this book.
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