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Mar 6, 2024

Fermentation, Fire & Our Big Brains with Katherine Bryant & Erin Hecht (podcast)

Could fermentation technology have been a driver of human brain expansion?

By Templeton Staff

Fermented foods could have provided the caloric boost that allowed our brains to expand, say Dr. Katherine Bryant, Postdoctoral Fellow at Aix-Marseille University, and Dr. Erin Hecht, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. 

In a new paper titled ‘Fermentation technology as a driver of human brain expansion,’ they examine this idea, and join Many Minds to discuss human brain evolution/

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"Brains are not cheap. It takes a lot of calories to run a brain, and the bigger your brain, the more calories it takes. So how is it that, over the last couple million years, the human brain tripled in size. How could we possibly have afforded that? Where did the extra calories come from? There’s no shortage of suggestions out there. Some say it was meat; others say it was tubers; many say it was by mastering fire and learning to cook. But now there’s a newer proposal on the table and — spoiler — it’s a bit funky.

Here, we talk about how the human body differs from the bodies of other great apes, not just in terms of our brains but also in terms of our bowels. We discuss the different mechanisms by which fermented foods provide nutritional benefits over unfermented foods. We consider how fermentation — which basically happens whether you want it to or not — would have been cognitively easier to harness than fire. Along the way, we touch on kiviaq, chicha, makgeolli, hákarl, natto, Limburger cheese, salt-rising bread, and other arguably delectable products of fermentation."

Be sure to check out the show notes for links with detailed information.

Play the episode with the above player.

Learn more about Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences priority.

Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.