Want a Bigger Brain? Eat Some Bugs

First Posted: Jul 04, 2014 01:23 PM EDT

Want a bigger brain? Try munching on some "tasty" bugs.

Researchers at Washington University found that eating bugs might seem gross, but it may have helped the evolution of the human brain. In fact, scientists believe that when our human and primate ancestors lived off of a diet of bugs, they grew bigger and even brighter thinking-caps.

"Challenges associated with finding food have long been recognized as important in shaping evolution of the brain and cognition in primates, including humans," said lead study author Amanda D. Melin, PhD, assistant professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, in a news release. "Our work suggests that digging for insects when food was scarce may have contributed to hominid cognitive evolution and set the stage for advanced tool use."

After observing capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica for a five-year-period, researchers found that evolutionary theory linked certain enhancements of sensorimotor skills both hidden and more difficult to obtain. They also found that just as many humans like to eat insects on a seasonal basis, capuchin monkeys also have a diet high in bugs during certain seasons.

"We find that capuchin monkeys eat embedded insects year-round but intensify their feeding seasonally, during the time that their preferred food - ripe fruit - is less abundant," Melin said. "These results suggest embedded insects are an important fallback food."

"Primates who extract foods in the most seasonal environments are expected to experience the strongest selection in the 'sensorimotor intelligence' domain, which includes cognition related to object handling," Melin said. "This may explain the occurrence of tool use in some capuchin lineages, but not in others."

The study shows how insects just might be an important alternative when food is not available.

"This study suggests that the ingenuity required to survive on a diet of elusive insects has been a key factor in the development of uniquely human skills," Melin concluded.

More information regarding the findings can be seen via the Journal of Human Evolution.

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