The Science of Scarcity

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Cara Feinberg in Harvard Magazine (Photograph by Jim Harrison):

TOWARD THE END of World War II, while thousands of Europeans were dying of hunger, 36 men at the University of Minnesota volunteered for a study that would send them to the brink of starvation. Allied troops advancing into German-occupied territories with supplies and food were encountering droves of skeletal people they had no idea how to safely renourish, and researchers at the university had designed a study they hoped might reveal the best methods of doing so. But first, their volunteers had to agree to starve.

The physical toll on these men was alarming: their metabolism slowed by 40 percent; sitting on atrophied muscles became painful; though their limbs were skeletal, their fluid-filled bellies looked curiously stout. But researchers also observed disturbing mental effects they hadn’t expected: obsessions about cookbooks and recipes developed; men with no previous interest in food thought—and talked—about nothing else. Overwhelming, uncontrollable thoughts had taken over, and as one participant later recalled, “Food became the one central and only thing really in one’s life.” There was no room left for anything else.

Though these odd behaviors were just a footnote in the original Minnesota study, toprofessor of economics Sendhil Mullainathan, who works on contemporary issues of poverty, they were among the most intriguing findings. Nearly 70 years after publication, that “footnote” showed something remarkable: scarcity had stolen more than flesh and muscle. It had captured the starving men’s minds.

More here.

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