Monday Over Coffee: "Calories that Count"

Published April 3, 2023 by Greg Funderburk

I don't have a pedometer on my watch, but I know a lot of folks who do. Many of them judge their day as a victory or a defeat based on whether they hit their 10,000 steps or not. We all utilize somewhere between 1500 to 3000 calories to make our way through a typical day, and the number of steps we take and how much exercise we get makes a big difference as to whether we end up on the low or high end of that range by the time we go to bed.

Having said this, without regard to any physical exertions we might undertake, it's our brains that consume more calories than any other muscle or organ in our bodies. The brain gobbles up 600 to 800 calories each day, using about half of them to run its vital but subconscious routines—breathing, temperature regulation, digestion—that keep us alive, while it reserves the rest, around 320 per day, for us to think. But there's something else that is perhaps even more neurologically interesting going on. As the brain is going about its primary mission of surviving, pursuing critical information so that it might better thrive, it is also always carrying on a secondary mission—one of conserving calories in case extra energy is needed to deal with an unexpected peril. And the chief tactic our brains employ in this ongoing calorie-conservation project is something with which we're all familiar: Daydreaming.

Relentlessly fire-hosed with all sorts of information that isn't relevant to its chief aim of survival, our brains are wired to take a little break whenever the opportunity arises, zoning out a little to save some calories. That is, when it judges that what's before it isn't crucial to its short-term or long-term survive-and-thrive mission, it downshifts. Recall for instance the last time you were listening to a speaker and your mind began to wander off. This happens to the best of us, but now think back again. I bet when the speaker started to tell a story, you suddenly sat up a little and tuned in again. What occurred there is that your brain went into calorie-saving, day-dreaming mode, then revved back up, deeming the story a possible source of survive-and-thrive information it could use on its main mission.

This is constantly occurring. Even right now, your brain is placing a bet one way or the other on whether finishing this little essay is worth the calories it'll take to reach the end. If you're still here, let me reward you with the knowledge that zoning out like this is, in a very real sense, a basic survival mechanism. I also challenge you to sometimes push back against these evolutionary headwinds. What if we better resist our natural inclination to downshift into this suboptimal-focus, daydreaming mode when we're with someone who really needs us to be with them and listen? There are certainly moments when someone, perhaps with little to offer to us, really needs our undivided attention. What if, when we sense we are in one of those situations, we took charge of our minds a little more, deploying our admittedly limited stores of energy, our limited allotment of available daily calories, not to gain something for ourselves but so that someone else, having been listened to, might thrive.

I've long thought one of the things God places on offer to us in Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount is the guide map for us to evolve beyond our biology—beyond these default settings—by focusing not just on ourselves and our own survival, or even that of our little nuclear families, but to extend the circle of our concern more widely and more widely and more widely again. If you're still with me, perhaps ask this: Is it possible Christ's instruction that we turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love our neighbors, and offer our goodwill even to our enemies and those we don't care for so much is—for lack of a better term—a Darwinian blueprint for human advancement? Jesus said, "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?" Could it be these words were not just a new theology of grace but the next step in human evolution? Use some of those calories your brain has commandeered for today to think and just consider it.

God — Help me take the next step in evolution. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk