Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

The psychology of taste

I posted the following on Creative Loafing’s food blog, Omnivore, today. Since it deals with psychology as well as gastronomy, I’m posting it here too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the psychology of taste in recent weeks. In my other occupation, the psychology one, I conduct workshops related to the imagination and creativity.

I’ve been developing one specifically about the interplay of taste and the imagination. About five years ago, I came across a study — I’ve lost the citation, unfortunately — that concluded that people who develop an adventurous palate also tend to develop a more adventurous, open-minded approach to life generally. The study, which followed students, advocated gastronomical education in the schools.

This seems sensible to me, but I’m also interested in the specific effects of different flavors. We’ve appropriated those to describe mental states. She’s sweet. He feels bitter. John McCain has a salty disposition. I’ve soured on Sarah Palin.

There is a fairly common but little discussed condition, synesthesia, in which the senses overlap naturally (as they do sometimes in the psychedelic experience). Synesthetes, about one in 2000 of the general population, most often hear color or see colors when they hear music, but taste is often involved too. I’ve been interested in the phenomenon since I interviewed R. E. Cytowic, author of The Man Who Tasted Shapes, in 1993 for Creative Loafing.

Recent research has concluded that the synesthetic experience seems to be within everyone’s capacity in childhood. In fact, people who don’t “outgrow” it report that their experience has been consistent ever since they can remember — meaning that if a particular word produced a particular taste in childhood, it continues to do so in adulthood. In short, it’s a virtual language of taste.

Neuroscience hasn’t concluded yet whether the synesthetic experience can be developed or intentionally recovered, although, as I said, psychedelic drugs often produce the effect, meaning that the overlap of the senses is not neurologically inhibited in all scenarios.

I have posited that part of the appeal of Ferran Adria’s so-called molecular gastronomy may have to do with synesthesia. By breaking down the elements of a dish into its purest flavors and then playfully rearranging them, does molecular gastronomy affect our perceptual and psychological experience? I don’t mean to suggest that it literally causes a synesthetic experience but that it does disorient our usual experience of flavor and, in that moment of disorientation, may awaken an imaginal capacity that’s not so present in day-to-day experience.

Adria has gotten a lot of publicity in the last month because of the publication of his newest book, A Day at elBulli: An insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adria. Find NPR’s recent essay here.

I was interested to read in a BBC essay that Adria’s style has been re-dubbed “techno-emotional cuisine,” a term that hints at its psychological effect. Adria himself says his work is most analogous to Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction. In that controversial discourse, Derrida argues that our sense of the unified whole — the meta-narrative — is basically a delusion, whose elements, broken down, turn out to be full of contradictions.

I won’t bore you with an entire discussion of deconstruction (and someone would invariably argue that I misunderstand it, anyway), but I can tell you that, at a psychological level, it’s a stimulating challenge to the usual sense of identity. By challenging identity, it invites us to try on different behaviors.

The point, gastronomically, is that by, for example, foregrounding the technological aspect of cooking, Adria sabotages our usual assumptions about dining. (Indeed, he’s come under intense attack for this by another famous Spanish chef, Santi Santamaria, in a kind of culinary debate between the essentialist and the relativist). Adria’s (and Richard Blais’) separation and intense distillation of flavors into their separate parts, often allowing the diner to play with taste, induces reverie in my experience and, whenever the imagination is intensely stimulated, there is an opportunity to increase awareness.

This of course also happens with traditional cooking, but, in my experience, the psychological effect is typically nostalgia or a sense of the beauty that architectural symmetry induces. When I eat this kind of food, I see Greek temples. When I eat Adria’s kind of cooking, I see fractals and Rorshach inkblots. One invites reverie on the solid and immobile; the other evokes a sense of the new and the changing.

By paying attention, mindfully eating, there is a kind of synesthetic response at the level of sensation and thought. I’m speaking metaphorically, although the experience is often literal. It’s worth cultivating in any case.

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