I was catching up on some podcasts the other day when I heard a fascinating segment from the excellent CBC Radio Quirks & Quarks programme (Mar. 6, 2010).
Physarum polycephalum, also known as the single celled slime mould has been found to be capable of risk management. Dr. Tanya Latty, a Canadian scientist at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney in Australia, has discovered that slime mould can make complex comparisons between two food options based on the quality of the food, and the risk of the eating environment. When given choices of food quality in various exposure to light, the slime mould was able to weight both the risks and benefits.
On her website Latty says:
I am interested in examining the decision making capabilities of slime moulds. Slime moulds, which are unicellular, lack brains. Nevertheless, we have recently shown that these simple organisms are capable of flexible and complex behaviours.
In fact, it sounded as though this mould often makes better decisions than we humans do when it comes to eating. I suspect that many of us know we should be eating something ‘healthy’ but still we go ahead and consume all kinds of high-risk foods and drinks.
Perhaps some of it comes down to the difficulties we have when faced with too much choice. Kim Hill did a very interesting 30 minute interview with Sheena Iyengar on choice back on 24 April 2010.
Or maybe it’s that we just don’t think about the choices at all, or even fully grasp that today’s hamburger and Coke may be taking a few minutes off our lifespan. After all, for most of us, if we even think about our death, we’ll imagine it to be decades away. What’s 10 minutes here or there?
For myself, I guess I often think positively:
If I eat that apple I’ll be healthier. I don’t so often think negatively:
If I eat that sugar-laden cake I may suffer poorer health and die sooner.
Either way, I still don’t always choose the apple over the cake.
It’d be interesting though to see research on how people choose food when faced directly with potential negative consequences. Would we choose an apple from a bowl below a poster of happy, healthy people, over a cake from below a poster of sickly, obese folks? And what about if they were switched around?