Beauty and the brain

Ingestion. Digestion. Absorption. These are three distinct phases of the process our bodies use to utilize micro and macro nutrients in food. But what if this same process applied to the ideas we “consume,” as well?

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we use so many food-related terms to describe knowledge and learning. We devour good books, absorb instruction – even refer to some collections of information as “digests.”

But what if we consider these figures of speech as more than figurative language?

Richard Dawkins famously described the behavior of ideas as being similar to that of viruses. His meme theory is now a well-known one, with its usage among the interwebbers as common as the food-related colloquialisms that came before it.

But what if the reason why ideas function like viruses is more than simply metaphor?


Most nutritionists tell us that our sense of taste was one of our first defense mechanisms. Foods that were harmful to us tasted bitter or sour. Foods that were beneficial tasted sweet and savory. And foods with a good mineral balance tasted appropriately salty.

When we ingested foods that tasted good, we survived. When the foods tasted bad, it was a sign of trouble. To assist our sense of taste, our sense of sight and smell developed, recognizing sustaining food as beautiful and poison as rancid.

What if the same were true for ideas? What if our sensory system is set up to warn us about good and bad ideas in much the same way it warns us about good and bad food?


So what is an idea? Is it an ephemeral mist…a supernatural vapor that swirls around our physical form? Or are ideas of the same physical world that the rest of our bodies occupy?

To suggest that ideas are supernatural would, of course, place the burden of proof on whomever proposes that claim. Our default position must be then that everything is a part of the physical world, ideas included (until demonstrated differently). As such, what might this imply? (Scientists like Susan Blackmore, link below, can share some of the more adventurous theories on memes.)

At the very least, a naturalistic viewpoint implies that an idea is as physical a part of someone’s body as the blood vessels that traverse it.

Now consider the implications of this position.

If an idea is a physical part of a person, and we attack that idea with a competing one, what is the consequence? Might we not we inflict as much pain as a zealot wielding a sword as we do when slashing into the ideas of another? And as significantly, what might be a more effective (and more compassionate) strategy for shaping someone else’s “position”?


One conclusion might be that we can apply what we know about nutrition to persuasion. As Mary Poppins sang, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” In other words, we cannot expect someone to absorb our ideas if the ideas can’t get past the person’s natural aversion to bitterness and sourness.

People like John Stewart, while superficial in their sound-bite arguments, do achieve a high degree of ingestion of their ideas in others. Later, these ideas can be digested and then, potentially absorbed, at a molecular level in the new host.

If we want to replace that newly formed appendage, our ideas – and the strategies for replicating them – must follow the same path. We must approach debate in much the same way as we would approach feeding someone a new dish.

The brain seeks to ingest that which it finds attractive. To reach the brain of another, we must first get past their gatekeeper of the beautiful. The senses.


About SWIRLosopher

The SWIRLosopher is Sean Trapani, a professor emeritus of advertising who - despite a degree in philosophy - has abandoned all reason and is trying to make a living in the wine business.

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