Is man just a hungry animal or has the environment in which we are living conditioned us to behave in a hungry way?   Raymond Tallis, scientist, philosopher, Professor Emeritus of Geriatric Medicine at Manchester University believes we are naturally hungry.  ‘It is the human condition,’ he asserts, ‘but the way we live has exaggerated it.’ 

 

Speaking at the joint meeting of the Cafés Scientifique and Philosophique at Chapel Allerton last Tuesday,  he explained that there were more hungers than hunger for food.  There is hunger for pleasure, hunger for others (desire and attachment) and the fourth hunger, hunger for a truth for meaning, purpose in life’.  I might also add a hunger for things or consumerism and a hunger for prestige or ambition. These are of course not separate hungers; they are all connected. 

 

Tallis’ talk was like a rich meal, consisting of carefully chosen assertion and cultivated eloquence, liberally seasoned with philosophical quotation.  He served it in a cultured manner and a rapid delivery that demanded instant consumption.  It was a repast concocted by a man, hungry for attention and presented to an audience greedy for insight and knowledge.  His assertions challenged absorption and assimilation; his arguments threatened indigestion.    

 

‘Starvation preoccupies the mind,’ Tallis stated emphatically. ‘When you are hungry and starving,  it becomes the essential meaning and purpose of life.’  To support his argument, he described how the most cultivated people, doctors, judges, rabbis, were reduced to grubbing around in rubbish dumps when starving in Auschwitz.  ‘People went insane through hunger.’     

 

In his gastro-centric discourse,  Tallis appeared to express the view that hunger in all its metaphorical and philosophical connotations was the motivation for life.  ‘We are driven by our appetites. They give us life.  We suffer a kind of death if those appetites are satiated.  It is not the object of our appetite that is important,’ Tallis asserted, ‘but the process.’   

 

Eating a meal conforms to the law of diminishing returns.  The first mouthful is a relief; it assuages the tension of hunger.  The next mouthful also but less so.  The third mouthful less again.  We finish the meal although we are no longer hungry.  What stops us the uncomfortable feeling of being replete, satiated.  In a philosophical sense we might be said to be bored with the meal.  Physiologists have the concept of sensory specific satiety, meaning that we soon get tired of the same food,  but if we relieve the boredom by stimulating our taste buds and the cilia of our olfactory cells, with different ingredients, then we can maintain the ‘hunger’ and eat and prolong the meal. Gastronomy was created to relieve the mini-death of eating. 

 

Although an incredible 820 million people, an eighth of the worlds population, still exist ‘on the bread line or lower’, for people living in ‘civilised countries’ food is readily available in abundance.  They don’t need to hunt for it or gather it from forest and marsh, they collect it from the supermarkets and store it in their fridge.  The overwhelming majority of people living in the towns and cities of affluent countries do not know the physical pangs caused by lack of food,  but that does not mean they don’t feel hunger.  Instead, Tallis asserts, hunger is transferred on to other ‘objects’, material objects, thrills, excitement, sex, companionship, love,  power, prestige  meaning and  truth. Civilisation and culture followed the conquest of hunger through agriculture and farming. There is so much to be hungry for.      

 

But if human life is driven by hunger, then it must never be allowed to be satisfied.  Satisfaction inevitably leads to a state of boredom, which Tallis cleverly defined as a hunger for hunger.   When it is no longer necessary to search for food, when material objects lose their appeal, thrills cloy, love affairs become tedious and there is nothing convincing enough to believe in, then what is the purpose of life? 

 

So does the modern epidemic of depression represent a permanent state of boredom,  the near-death inertia of satiation?  Are we permanently conditioned by our success either to accept a life of diminishing returns, where food, objects, family no longer satisfy our needs and we coast gently towards death?  Or are we condemned to a neurotic search for an essential meaning in life?   Have human beings become so successful at satisfying their basic biological and psychological needs that they are sated, overweight and under-motivated?  Is that the essential precondition for a decline of civilisation?   

 

Tallis’ suspicion was that epidemic of depression exists in the minds of the media and the drug companies rather than in any real change in people’s psychology.  I question that.  The psychoanalyst in me wondered how much he was projecting his own nervous appetite for life, his fear of the depressive death of boredom on to the rest of us.  All writers and philosophers project; it allows them to stand aloof from the maelstrom of humanity and survive. 

Tallis seems a very hungry man.  Perhaps he has to be hungry to ward off the dread of meaninglessness.  His physique, slim and energetic at 62 years of age, indicates that he has solved his hunger for food,  but he certainly demonstrates a enormous hunger for ideas and meaning and a desire for recognition – as if without this essential focus in life, he would cease to exist as a hungry animal.  A recent article in The Times (September 20th , 2008) told how he depressed he became after he retired from Manchester University and lost the focus of his job. ‘I was completely taken by surprise how worthless I felt.  Suddenly I had lost the thing I valued myself for.’  So Tallis needed to be needed;  he needed to be in peoples’ minds, the object of their attention, their envy, their desire even.  In the same article, he described himself, albeit tongue in cheek, as ‘the thinking woman’s crumpet!’    

 

 

Tallis views life from the philosophical vantage of physical hunger.  It is a useful and instructive perspective.  His book bubbles and sparkles with wit and erudition.  Do buy it!   But there are as many perspectives on human life as there are metaphors.  Some are so appropriate for some observations, others may fit better for different situations.  Tallis’ metaphor has its limitations

 

His premise, I thought, broke down when applied to perhaps the most obvious manifestations of hunger – the eating disorders; the modern epidemic of obesity and the dangerous deprivation of anorexia. 

       

Why are so many people driven to eat long after they are sated with food?  Why do they eat themselves into a state of complete boredom?  Is it a death wish?  I have interviewed a few patients with morbid obesity who have told me that they are eating themselves to death, but that is not the general rule.  Most people overeat, not to satisfy their biological hunger, but to fill other gaps in their life.  Many fat people are needy, even greedy, not for food but for love.  Many have been deprived of care, love and attention when they were growing up.  Many have felt worthless.  Many have not felt listened to.  Many felt they were not wanted.  For all of them, love and security are the essential need; food is a surrogate.  They ate to fill the emotional hole inside of them.     

 

As children we were programmed to seek out not just food, but our entire life support system of shelter, security, comfort that included food, and as we grew and became increasingly separate and independent,  those essential needs became more abstract as they were sublimated into achievement, prestige, recognition and meaning. 

 

As Tallis pointed out, eating a meal is so much more than the consumption of food.  The family dinner is an occasion that affirms the essential emotional bond; it is redolent with the memory and meaning of family.  The banquet is an essential component of any congress; it brings people with disparate views together, it fuels human discourse and understanding.  The setting, the entertainment, the rituals of speeches and toasts, the presents, let alone the food, are about community, security, love and understanding among peoples. 

 

Tallis was quick to emphasise how much more meaningful and civilised his meal was compared to that of his cat.  I am sure that is true, but the point seems a hollow one.  When you examine eating behaviour among animals carefully, you see that it is part of a complex grooming sequence. Chimpanzees, glutted on a monkey they have caught and dismembered, will not only share out the food according to strict hierarchy but will also indulge in a post-prandial mutual grooming and cuddling before they fall asleep.  Cats in the wild, pack dogs, indeed any social mammal and many birds have rituals around food that serve functions of security and group cohesion as much if not more than the biological needs for nourishment. 

 

So I would contend that eating is not just about nourishment, it is part of the complex of  behaviours that make up what we call nurturing.  When a mother feeds her infant, she delivers a complete care package, shelter, warmth, safety, comfort, understanding as well as food and drink.  Which one of these takes biological precedence is not clear, but my guess is that is not food.  When Harry F. Harlow placed infant monkeys with two different surrogate mothers; one composed of a wire frame that delivered meal through a nipple and the other covered in fur that delivered no milk, they invariably went to the furry one and starved. 

 

Nutrition could be compared to a hijacker on a pleasure cruise.  The consumption of food stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain. Experiments carried out in rats have demonstrated that when the putative pleasure centre, the nucleus accumbens, is stimulated directly by electrodes inserted through the skull and attached to a lever which the animals can operate, they do not bother to eat; they just press the lever repeatedly to give themselves a buzz of satisfaction. There is evidence that certain addictive drugs may work on the same centre.           

 

Indeed, if hunger were the primary drive, then why are so many young girls anorexic?  It seems that for them, the desire for the security of childhood outweighs the drive for food. 

 

So is it food that is the essential need, as Tallis has suggested, or is it attachment, as the psychoanalyst, John Bowlby has asserted?  Are we not so much the hungry animal as an insecure animal?  We need the company of others, in reality or in our imagination.  If that is not there, we will crave a surrogate: food, thrills, possessions and sex. 

 

We are also a perverse animal. As much as we crave security, when we have it, we want to get away.  The anxious drive for freedom and change can be as strong as the yearning for security.  That is when ambivalent illnesses, such as anorexia, can supervene to sort out the dilemma.  Human beings would not have been so successful if civilisation had not conspired to make them so neurotic.    

 

So are we, as Tallis seems to suggest, living in a permanent state of anxiety, preoccupied with the lack of what we feel we need to support our lives?  Are we all like Sisyphus, condemned to roll the boulder up the hill, obtaining a grim kind of satisfaction in the effort?  Or does that only apply to the neurotic majority?   If Tallis is right, he presents a very bleak view of human life; permanently driven, never satisfied, constantly striving to avoid boredom and depression. 

 

Are our notions of peace and contentment just goads to drive us on in an ever futile quest for an illusory satisfaction?   And if we see through it all and lose the illusion and see our striving as merely the way we are programmed to avoid entropy, do we just succumb to a loss of meaning? 

 

I retain the touching belief that humans are capable of blissful states of peace and contentment, conditions of being without striving, the freedom from all needs and desires that the Buddhists call nirvana.  Babies are probably in that state for much of the time.  But for the rest of us, we have to find it in nature, the companionship of others, music, poetry, reading in front of the fire, listening to the radio and paradoxically, rhythmic exercise like running.  

 

I think both states of being exist and alternate within us like yin and yang.  They are  expressed in the body via activity in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  The sympathetic creates the tension for change to endeavour to satisfy our needs, while the parasympathetic conserves energy by promoting rest, companionship, digestion, growth and sleep.  For a complete life the two must be in balance.  The problem is that the way we lead our lives these days is destabilising and encouraging us to strive for illusory goals more than is healthy.   

 

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