My meals look like most of the ones eaten by a 21st-century American. It doesn’t matter what the meal is; you might not even see the meal, except perhaps as the occasional forkful rising from behind my laptop screen. The view will be less obstructed at a restaurant, where you can watch the intricate dance of placing a utensil down and picking iPhone up in one smooth motion. Meals have become a time when our mouths are busy but our minds – and our hands – are continually active.
My excuse for distracted eating has always been that I am eating alone. Mindful eating is a great concept in theory, but rather difficult to put into practice while fighting against the perceived stigma of a table-for-one. Today, though, I have learned of a new reason to put away the electronics and pay attention to my meal: so it will taste better.
You might think your taste buds run on automatic, responding to whatever you put on your tongue in a mechanical, if-it’s-present-I-shall-respond way. Not so. How things taste is influenced by how much attention you pay to them. Taste lemon juice while you are trying to remember a 7-digit phone number, and you’ll think it’s less sour than if you are trying to remember a single digit. That might sound like a good thing – unless you’re part of the new trend for liking sour foods – but it also applies to how sweet we find grenadine syrup, and how salty we think crackers are, regardless of how thirsty or hungry we are.
Now, these differences were relatively small, roughly half a point on a scale of 1 to 7; it’s not as thought people trying to remember a long number failed to recognize that lemon juice was sour. But the task they were distracted by was also relatively simple compared to what I sometimes find myself doing while eating; revising a research paper, grading a student’s paper, even just reading about the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on gay marriage can suck my attention away from my food far more effectively than a simple memory task. Which is sad, in a way, because I was eating what should have been a very delicious souffle when that ruling was announced.
So although the cost to our taste perception isn’t quite extreme enough to be called “inattentional blandness” (after “inattentional blindness“) it might just be enough for me to put my electronics away and focus on my food.
At least, the food that I think will actually taste good. I’m not sure my next McDonald’s visit will merit my attention, or that any amount of distraction can make those fries not taste salty.