It was bound to happen. Two great trends have met at last: neuroscience and foodism. Inspired by the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton, New Jersey, on the one hand, and molecular gastronomist Ferran Adria of El Bulli restaurant, Cala Monjoi, Spain, on the other, gastronomy and the brain is now officially on the table as one of the top trends of 2013. Coming soon to a 3-star restaurant near you: menus co-created between chefs and neurologists. Yum.
Psychologist Paul Rozin asked 200 people to describe their all-time favourite meal. Most mentioned the main course but fewer than a quarter mentioned the appetizer, dessert, beverage or ambience. Only 40% referred to people they shared the meal with. However, those who ate steak remembered it fondly.
It turns out that there is only a slight relationship between an experience and how we remember it. Rozin interviewed diners on what they felt was the most important aspect of a great dining experience. The actual dining part garnered 48%, with anticipation of the meal and the memory of it pretty much dividing the balance. Based on his own and Kahneman’s research, Rozin cooked up a list of what makes a meal be remembered as great. Good news here for those with ADD, but bad news if you’re training to be a pastry chef.
Novelty is a big factor in creating good memories. When returning to a restaurant, it’s always a tough call between choosing a past favourite or daring to try a new dish. But tasting the same thing again doesn’t add anything new to your memory bank; you’re just repeating something you already know. So, expect to see more tasting menus from restauranteurs who learn about Rozin’s work.
Beginnings and endings matter. In psychology, the primacy effect means we have an easier time remembering things we experience first in a series. We also remember how things ended. Like the coda in classical music, we find a full-orchestra-on-the-stage ending satisfying. Traditionally, dessert ends the meal, yet studies show that desserts are not that memorable. Could this be the death knell for crème brûlée?
The ‘smerge’ of psychology and gastronomy could give new meaning to the term ‘mindful eating’ and lead the charge to a food revolution. In the right hands, it will mean menus with smaller portions, (since it’s novelty we’re fond of, not volume); fewer desserts, (we barely recall them anyway); and showstoppers at the start and end of the meal. Imagine a foodie nirvana of peak dining experiences, with no surplus blubber. (And other pleasant ROIs like fewer obesity-related illnesses, a containment of health care costs…)
Then again, dark forces, (e.g. marketing departments in snack food and fast-food conglomerates), may be at work—right this very minute—partnering with secret psych labs to create noshes no human can possibly resist. Hint: Bacon could be involved. Lock up your pigs.