Informing the Body

Your body runs on information. Think of your body as an information processor and how it works begins to fall into focus.

Food as information has many forms. There are proteins and calories, fats and sugars. Yet there are innumerable information packed chemicals in food, ranging from vitamins to drugs to radioactive elements. There’s genetic material inside the the living plants and animals we eat. MicroRNAs go directly from our guts into our bloodstreams and change our genetic expression. Where you eat changes how you eat—give people the same meal in an otherwise identical red room, and they’ll eat a third more than in a blue one.

But can information also be ingested like food?

I owe this question to my friend computer entrepreneur Tom Walker, who showed me an entertaining TED conference by scientist P.G. Rangaswami. He finds many parallels between information processing and food processing. Rangaswami’s definition of information appears limited to conscious material available over the Net or in books; an impoverished but common view.

Most of what goes into your body as information is not conscious. It is nonetheless critical to life. One small example: have you queried your immune system about the 65 different bacterial populations that just arrived with your latest sandwich? Most of the information coming into your brain—let alone the rest of the body—is stuff of which you remain cognitively unaware.

It’s there. You just don’t know it’s there. 

But viewing information as food is a useful metaphor. It helps people get a handle on just how ubiquitous and powerful information is. Information shapes our lives.

Can we can use knowledge gained by how food affects weight and health to suggest new ways to “ingest” information?

Sure. 

A. With Information And Food, Variety Really Helps

1. New information cross references with old information to create new ideas. That’s what the brain normally does. It’s also a reason why we need sleep to live. Sleep is when much of that information processing takes place.

2. Try to take in new information in different places. You’ll learn more. 

Give kids a chance to study for six hours. Let me them study in 3 places or one. They learn more when they go to three places.

Why? Because lots of the information coming into our heads is not conscious, but still changes how the brain sees it, summarizes it, and uses it. You learn differently standing in a woodland than sitting at a library carrel. 

3. Man does not live on bread alone. It’s best to review all kinds of information—and to use a wide variety of information sources.

Surviving on “superfoods” may be catnip for marketers, but humans survive best on a variety of foods. We don’t actually survive particularly well on single foods—we engage life ingesting groups of foods, called cuisines. The Japanese idea of putting five colors on your plate—that’s real food, not fruit loops or blue M&Ms—is worthwhile in showing us a good way to process information.

B. Information Gets Ingested Better at the Right Times

Want to learn calculus? A foreign language? Don’t try either in the middle of your sleep period. 

Rest is necessary to human regeneration. One reason is that in rest—like the passive rest of sleep —we are reordering and reorganizing the constant flow of new information with the knowledge we already possess.

Stop that process and you can’t renew and remake your internal information well—or at all. Studying for a test at 3 in the morning—unless you are a confirmed biological owl—makes it less likely you’ll learn it. Without sleep you can’t properly consolidate information into knowledge.

Humans are generally good at learning stuff in the mornings and evenings, generally better than during the mid- afternoons. 

Looking at food as information will tell you as much. Want to gain weight and blow up your blood lipid levels? Eat deep in the night. It won’t do much for your health.

Or your learning.

C. Taking in Information Is Just Part of Learning

If you want to lose weight, you can concentrate solely on diet. It may work. 

For a while. But well over 90 percent of the time your project will fail.

That’s because weight is about a lot more than what you eat.

It’s about how you move—whether you walk or sit all day. It’s about whether you rest—sleep less, weigh more. It’s about sociality—who your friends are can have a big impact on how much you weigh—and what you look like.

Weight is just one factor in health, but it’s a large part of socially acceptable appearance. And appearance matters to a lot of people—even when they say it doesn’t.

So if you want to treat information as food, recognize that how you physically move will make a big difference in how well you take in stuff. Physically active people think better and are more alert. 

Socially active people feel better. They often look better—not just to others. 

And exchanging information with other people—as in that sadly devalued activity, face to face conversation—is a great way to impart and reevaluate new and old information. In other words, learn.

It might make you wiser.

Information rules the world. How you “ingest” it changes more than its content.

It changes its usability. And it changes you.

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