“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”
—Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, 1981” Quoted in Van der Wal & van Dillen (2013)
This article is about food, and eating. And sensations. But there’s a more general point about the value of paying attention to what you are doing. Or perhaps more about the value of engaging fully in tasks.
The modern world is all about doing as much as we can as quickly as we can. Multitasking and efficiency and high-frequency are keywords in the office. Let’s have a meeting, over lunch, whilst keeping an eye on the monitor screen and the stock prices, and checking our phones constantly for a mention on twitter.
Clearly our brains can cope with multiple information channels. In fact we seem to enjoy bombarding ourselves with attention-grabbing stimuli and sensations. In neuroscience research, there are plenty of dual-task studies showing that we can, for example, listen to a list of words (and remember them!) whilst simultaneously scanning a visual scene for a target object (Baddeley, 1992). But just because we can do it, does it mean we should be doing it? Maybe so. Maybe it is good ‘brain training’ to be pushing ourselves to our cognitive and neural limits: “Look I can remember your phone number, estimate your BMI, and deliver a fabulous chat-up line all at the same time – aren’t I fantastic!?”
But are we losing something when we spread our cognitive capacities thinly? Is there a value to a greater focus and depth in our attention? van der Wal and van Dillen certainly argue so in a recent study in my favourite journal – Psychological Science. Using may favourite sensory system – taste – they explore how we perceive the richness or intensity of tastes depending on how attentive we are being.
The authors explored the observation that we often do something else whilst we eat our meals: chat to our friends, watch TV, read an online blog etc. The research study was simple – you are given a taste to rate for intensity (how sweet is this, how salty, how sour?) and whilst you are tasting you either focus on the taste or you focus on something else. The research question was whether your perception of the tastes is affected by the focus of your attention. The interesting element here is that the sensory stimulus stays the same but does your conscious perception differ. It’s the classic “world out there” vs “world in here” question.
The Results: when attention is elsewhere, tastes were perceived as less intense. The salty butter was less salty, the Grenadine less sweet, the lemon less sour. So even though the *actual* taste was the same, the participants’ sensations were different!
This might not be altogether surprising… but let’s dwell on the implications for a moment. Essentially, what this study is demonstrating is that on the one hand the world inside our heads is not a replica of the world outside – there’s a filter that shifts and changes what we sense and understand. On the other hand, the focus of our attention is critical to the richness of our sensations.
So, if you want to get the most out of something, focus solely on it and avoid distraction or the temptation to multi-task. For example, if you really want to learn something from this seminar then turn off your phone and focus on what the speaker is saying. If you want to get the most out of the article you are reading, sit quietly in the corner and read it. (Why do websites always insist on putting animated adverts down the sides of interesting articles! My recommendation is to copy and paste the text from online sources and either print them or copy into Pages or Word in order to read properly.) And most importantly, If you truly want to appreciate that steak and chips, then focus your mind on the flavours of each mouthful! (I can almost taste it now… just thinking about it.)
There are a couple of interesting connections here. Firstly, the practice of Mindfulness is associated with better, clearer, more fulfilling sensations… and better focus. And is all about understanding and harnessing the processes of attention and sensations (Brown and Ryan, 2003). indeed, currently there is a lot of neuroscientific interest in Mindfulness.
Secondly, there’s a process called ‘Flow’ which I may have written (I think I have) about before. (If not, then I will at some point soon!) Anyway, athletes call it being “in the zone” and report that they perform at their best when they are in this state of mind. You can experience it doing most things and it captures that mindset of being totally focused on what you are doing, losing your sense of time, and balancing your skills with the challenge at hand. Flow is a state of mind that is supposed to be very good for us (Csíkszentmihályi, 1997) and one way to promote a flow state is to focus focus focus on what you are doing.
I am not saying that we should be seeking flow experiences every time we eat a cheese and ham panini, but It is clear for a number of reasons (memory, well-being, sensory enjoyment, performance) that we should spend less time cramming-in-as-much-as-possible-all-at-once and more time focusing on one thing on a time. At the very least, the world will taste better…
– Dr John –
- Baddeley A (1992) Working memory. Science Vol. 255 no. 5044 pp. 556-559
- Kirk Warren Brown and Richard M. Ryan (2003) The Benefits of Being Present: Mindfulness and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 84, No. 4, 822–848
- Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books. NY.
- Reine C. van der Wal and Lotte F. van Dillen (2013) Leaving a Flat Taste in Your Mouth : Task Load Reduces Taste Perception. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612471953