Can better nutrition help you compete with the tidal wave of automation that’s about to hit modern workplaces? That’s the premise of Optimal, an exhibition and event series in Broadgate, London that included a supper club to see if eating better can enhance your brain power. New Scientist was promised that this meal would “future-proof [us] for a new age, by nourishing the biggest muscle in the human body: the brain”. This anatomical categorisation error might alarm some biologists, but New Scientist’s reporters are not easily deterred from a free meal.
The menu was apparently designed to boost creativity, cognitive agility and critical thinking – inspired by a World Economic Forum report – and began with a selection of canapés. They included mackerel, a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have long been claimed to support healthy brain function. There was also whipped avocado with mango mole on a chia seed cracker providing us with nutrients such as magnesium, curcumin and tryptophan, a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin.
For the main course, along with a poached lemon sole we’re given an electroencephalography (EEG) headset. EEG measures electrical activity of the brain, typically using electrodes placed on the scalp, but the latest devices have a band that wraps around the forehead, with the two ends perched over the ears. It connects wirelessly to a tablet display showing five traces representing different frequencies of brainwaves.
Worryingly, when I first put on the headband, the traces remain stubbornly flat. Then I take a bite of fish and the lines spring into life. The omega-3 in the sole is powerful stuff, it seems.
Given the unreliability of the kit, it takes a bit of creativity to interpret the recordings. Thankfully, the fish is accompanied by edamame beans, a source of phenylalanine, a precursor to dopamine. According to the notes I’m given, dopamine supports a curious searching mind.
For dessert, there’s a bitter dark chocolate and ginger brownie with matcha ice cream, providing anti-inflammatory curcumin and flavonoids, supposedly boosting memory.
To see if these “hero ingredients” really work as they are supposed to, the Optimal organisers conducted a small experiment, in which three participants were given a 10-day nutrition plan. At the end of the 10 days, they got higher scores on three cognitive tests than they got at the start.
If your diet has been optimised for critical thinking, you might be thinking that three is a small sample size, and there was no control group. Of course this isn’t a rigorous scientific study, but perhaps it illustrates a genuine point: if you make a concerted effort to eat healthily, it’s possible the placebo effect will improve your performance, regardless of which nutrients you actually consume.
Unfortunately, the entire field of nutrition science suffers from a dearth of good quality evidence to support its assertions. As we reported in depth in a recent New Scientist feature, it’s very difficult to do long-term controlled trials assessing different diets without the results being influenced by unintended factors. Many ingredients are marketed as superfoods on the basis of experiments in animals or cell cultures, but the promised benefits don’t always show up in humans.
Take omega-3, for example. There has been no shortage of research on the effect of these nutrients on cognitive function. While a few studies have found improvements, they have mostly been low quality trials without placebo controls. Better quality studies have tended to find no effect, and systematic reviews have concluded that the evidence of any benefits is weak. All of this means it’s unlikely that we really can eat our way to a better brain.
It was fun to try, but believing a handful of micronutrients will boost our brainpower at the same time as knocking back several glasses of wine really is a test of cognitive agility. Those of us looking to optimise our thinking skills already know what the most effective step would be – we’re just worried it will make evenings like this a little less fun.
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