Energy efficiency is key to survival

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A note for The Half-Lesson, "Your Brain Is Not for Thinking," in Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context from page 5 is:

If [creatures] burned up energy fleeing from a potential threat that never arrived, they wasted resources that they might have needed later. Energy efficiency was a key to survival.

The body’s energy considerations are a major constraint on evolution and on brain evolution in particular. An anatomically bigger brain is more expensive and, in humans, consumes about 20% of your metabolic budget (versus approximately 8–9% for a chimp's brain).[1] Neuronal signaling accounts for most of the cost, about 13% of your entire metabolic budget.

For an engaging narrative on the importance of energy regulation in evolutionary change, written for the general public, see Richard Rangham's Catching Fire.[2] Also see these references.[3][4]

For readings on the energetic costs of brain function and brain evolution, see these references.[5][6][7][8]

In Darwin's words

"... natural selection is continually trying to economize in every part of the organization.... it will profit the individual not to have its nutriment wasted...." (Darwin, 1859, p. 137)[9]


  1. Clarke, Donald D, and Louis Sokoloff. 1999. "Circulation and Energy Metabolism of the Brain." In Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects, sixth edition, edited by George J. Siegel, Bernard W. Agranoff, R. Wayne Albers, Stephen K. Fisher, and Michael D. Uhler, 637–670. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott-Raven.
  2. Wrangham, Richard. 2010. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Philadelphia: Perseus Books.
  3. Lane, Nick. 2014. “Bioenergetic Constraints on the Evolution of Complex Life.” Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology 6 (5): a015982.
  4. Pontzer, Herman. 2015. "Energy Expenditure in Humans and Other Primates: A New Synthesis." Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 169–187.
  5. Alexandre, Zenon, Oleg Solopchuk, and Giovanni Pezzulo. 2019. “An Information-Theoretic Perspective on the Costs of Cognition.” Neuropsychologia 123: 5–18.
  6. Bullmore, Ed, and Olaf Sporns. 2012. “The Economy of Brain Network Organization.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 13 (5): 336–349.
  7. Kuzawa, Christopher W., Harry T. Chugani, Lawrence I. Grossman, Leonard Lipovich, Otto Muzik, Patrick R. Hof, Derek E. Wildman, Chet C. Sherwood, William R. Leonard, and Nicholas Lange. 2014. “Metabolic Costs and Evolutionary Implications of Human Brain Development.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (36): 13010–13015.
  8. Sterling, Peter and Simon Laughlin. 2015. Principles of Neural Design. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
  9. Darwin, Charles. (1859) 2003. On the Origin of Species. Facsimile edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.