food as an enablement technology

How food can enable human potential, increase wellbeing and catalyse civilisational progress.

As you’ll often hear Sam Harris wax on about on his crazy popular podcast, “All we have is consciousness and its contents”. It’s a line that’s pretty hard to argue with. When you consider it, that’s all human experience really is. Together, they represent the lens through which we view the world, the determinative context of our subjective experience. The product of our genetic material and environmental influences, it’s what makes us, us.

And we know consciousness and its contents are variables that can be easily influenced. We can change lenses, temporarily, or even permanently. No two days (or moments) are ever the same. That’s because we’re ever-changing. Our experience is constantly being shaped by influences both internal and external. If one accepts this, and it’s kinda hard not to, then it stands to reason that we should all endeavour to improve our consciousness, and fill it with the best material imaginable.

It’s a notion that’s becoming increasingly popular, thanks to the intellectual and philosophical influence of the East. It’s quickly becoming accepted that there are things that can improve (or expand) our consciousness — like yoga, meditation, loving relationships, psychedelics etc. — and there are things that can degrade (or constrict) our consciousness — alcohol, opiates, abusive relationships, and so forth. It’s an empowering idea: that we’re in fact responsible for the quality of our own experience (at least to some extent).

But less appreciated is the effect that food has on our consciousness. Although there’s a growing movement of people who recognise and leverage the power of food, for the most part, we utterly fail to grasp the profundity of the stuff we put inside our bodies. While there is undoubtedly myriad reasons for this little-big oversight, the crux is that we’ve inherited our dietary habits and heuristics from a line of generations that thought of food in terms of its essentiality. In other words, since the dawn of time we’ve recognised that food is essential to our survival — that much we’ve never mistaken. But what we once had, and have since lost, is a respect and appreciation for the extent to which food can enable us to thrive — to potentiate our health and thus enable our innate potential.

Think of it this way: our consciousness is the product of our biology, and our biology is influenced by certain inputs. Alongside water, food is the most critical of human inputs. And just as there are foods that can negatively influence our biology, there are foods that can optimise and elevate our biology. By elevating our biology, we elevate our consciousness. By elevating our consciousness, we elevate the quality of our subjective experience. And by elevating the quality of our subjective experience, we elevate the extent to which we can positively impact the world. In other words, food is important stuff — far more important than we tend to give it credit for.

If you fancy yourself an intellectual, a rationalist, or scientific objectivist, then perhaps there’s a better way to frame it. Here it goes. Food is a complex make-up of chemical constituents, just as we are. So when we consume food, we’re inviting chemistry into our bodies, which in turn, affects our own biochemistry. Our lives are basically just one big science experiment. Sometimes the chemical reaction creates a positive outcome, resulting in greater health, vibrancy, and energy, while others can be disastrous, causing us to feel lazy, apathetic, and just plain miserable. While this is of course a great simplification, it provides the necessary framework required to appreciate what’s going on at a physiological and biochemical level every time we ingest.

What ancient societies have intuited and recognised for millennia, our modern minds are only just beginning to appreciate: food is either medicine, or poison. Our eyes are opening to this as we continue to discover more about the unique chemistry of food, and the extent to which it affects our own. For instance, there’s a class of plant-based compounds known as polyphenols — think curcumin found in turmeric, capsaicin in chilli, caffeine etc. These polyphenols, we’re beginning to learn, catalyse a cascade of chemical reactions within our bodies, regulating certain chemical pathways associated with a variety of bodily functions, from reducing inflammation to maintaining cellular health. Similarly, we’re learning that certain foods contain (either inherently or when prepared in a certain way) compounds that do the exact opposite — cause inflammation, compromise mitochondrial (cell) function, and depress our hormonal and immune systems. These insights represent huge breakthroughs in our understanding of the effect that food has on our biology, a paradigm shift in our food consciousness. This new paradigm challenges previous simplistic, reductionist approaches to nutrition, taking us beyond mere macro and micronutrients, towards a more holistic, nuanced perspective. In this new paradigm, the name of the game is not only consuming the right balance of protein, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals, but as many of these beneficial compounds as possible, and as few of the nasties.

But why does any of this matter, you ask? Well, most of us strive to be better versions of ourselves tomorrow than we are today. Unfortunately, we’re not nearly as successful in this endeavour as we might hope. We set goals, we visualise, but all too often, we just can’t seem to get our sh*t together. Most of the time, our efforts appear to be in vein. That’s because changing ourselves is an uphill battle. We’re trying to change our way of living, our biology, our consciousness — stubborn ol’ things that solidify over years, decades. When we aspire to change, we are — whether knowingly or not — determining to break this solidity, to re-mould ourselves. Unsurprisingly, this takes a bit of work. Good intentions, while admirable, do not suffice. To truly improve ourselves, although we might find it hard to admit, sometimes we simply need a little help. If we can learn to acknowledge this, then the progress that we so concern ourselves with will inevitably follow; for society is a reflection of our human nature, warts and all. To make the world a better place, we must first make ourselves better human beings.

As a species, we’re facing some sticky — existentially so — issues. They’re complex and the solutions ambigous. But one thing is for certain: technology is not the solution to humanity’s problems, a panacea, despite it often being tauted as such. Just as the world around us is a reflection of our humanity, so too is the technology we build and the ways in which we use it. The fact that technology which was developed for benevolent purposes is all too frequently hi-jacked for nefarious and downright malevolent ends is testament to this. Facebook was not designed to undermine democracy, but alas… The internet was not invented so that our attention could be auctioned to advertisers, and yet… Don’t get me wrong, technology will be essential to solving these seemingly intractable problems we’re dealing with. But while technology might enable us to rise up to the challenges we face, we cannot depend on it. Instead, we must direct our attention to the source: our humanness. We must strive to amplify the traits and virtues that make our kind so special — empathy, compassion, altruism, foresight, love — while dialing down the less desirable — greed, imprudence, intolerance, jealousy, hate. To this end, we must harness the tools and technologies (in the broadest sense of the word) at our disposal. We must leverage the things that make us demonstrably better humans — yoga, meditation, psychedelics, love, and perhaps most important (as I’ve tried to persuade), food.

If we choose to use these enabling technologies consciously and intentionally, we can begin to make the ultimate uphill battle — improving ourselves, and therefore, the world — a little less daunting. All of a sudden we will have momentum, as our innate power is augmented and amplified.

It all goes back to this idea of consciousness and its contents — the two critical pieces of the puzzle that ultimately determine our experience, and our collective fait. Yes, it’s abstract, esoteric, metaphysical, philosophical stuff. But it’s also undeniable and remarkably practical. It has the effect of re-orienting one’s focus. If you acknowledge the importance of these two factors, then you’re more likely to resolve to do things that improve your consciousness, and intentionally fill it with the kinds of content you want floating throughout your head.

So let’s. Let’s put in the work. Let’s strive to improve the nature of our consciousness, and elevate the quality of its contents. Let’s take control of our biology. Let’s advance the human experiment. And let’s eat lots of plants. For the future is not only in our hands — it’s in our food.

Nathan McNiece