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Why Food Is Like Love: We All Have an 'Omnivorous Mind'
Photo © Illustration Works / Corbis

Why Food Is Like Love: We All Have an 'Omnivorous Mind'

A chat with neuroscientist John Allen, that explains FDL his idea of "foodgasm": like it happens in a relationship, the pleasure is a matter of mind

By FDL on

There are many different ways to tell the story of human beings and an American neuroscientist has chosen one of the most personal, fascinating and basic: the reasons that guide our taste.

Eating is all a matter of the mind, not just our stomachs and palate, according to John Allen, a professor and research scientist at Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.

Prof. Allen says eating is directly connected to our brains, a theory he developed in his last book The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food.  The book details how the choice of every meal, including the origins of taste and disgust, are based on the cultural heritage passed down by our ancestors. Moreover, humans tend to “sexualize” food, which led Prof. Allen to study the so-called “foodgasm.” 

Professor Allen, how can we define the "foodgasm"?
The euphoric, orgasm-like feeling one gets when eating the first bite of a much anticipated, delicious food. A foodgasm should not last too long: having one after each bite when eating a piece of cake would be strange. It is only for the first bite or two that it is acceptable. Now, we could define it from the (possible) neurocognitive direction: there is a part of the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex, that is definitely important in processing the feeling of satiation and the pleasantness of a taste, and which is also activated during orgasm. When a person feels satiated that is a signal to stop eating; similarly, an orgasm is the end of a sexual episode, and people often feel satiated in that way, as well.

Love, sex and food: is there a connection for humans?
Looking at chimpanzees, we know that males trade meat with females for sexual access, so it is reasonable to assume that food (along with other objects or services) has long been a part of human sexual relationships. Amongst almost all human groups, with whom one shares food is an important marker of relationship status. This is of course not always in a sexual context. But it certainly can occur in the context of courting or in signaling to others a sexual or loving relationship. In a household economics sense, the fact that males and females both typically have some responsibility for provisioning food to children also brings food into reproductive and sexual relationships. Finally, both emotion and eating can potentiate memory formation. During the early, emotionally charged stage of a relationship, meals can therefore be extra memorable given the combination of these factors.

In your book, you write that we eat with our mind.
Each person has something I call "theory of food" (which is analogous to "theory of mind", the collection of integrated cognitive abilities that allow us to apparently effortlessly engage the complex social environments we live in as adults). This theory of food develops as we are growing up, based on biological preferences, cultural traditions, the family environment, and individual experiences. What emerges in the adult is an implicit cognitive theory about what is and is not edible, about how and when to eat, with whom food is shared or not. So we eat with our minds because theory of food creates the acceptable food universe in which live. It can be changed, but that takes effort (like learning a second or third language), which is one reason why dieting is hard.

Who was the first chef of the history?  For you,  which one was the best chef in history?
One could say that the first person to cook with fire is the first chef. But I think that we can go back beyond that. The first chef could have been any early human who deliberately set out to collect two different food items, strictly because he or she thought they would be good together, to me that would be having some qualities associated with being a chef (or a shopper). Now, there may be chimpanzees who do this, which might put the first chef to before we split from them evolutionarily.

Second, of course, the best chef for me was my mother. My theory of food concept means that anyone who prepares food for a child as he or she grows up will have an extraordinarily important influence on that individual's development as an eating person (for better or worse). So my mother did all the cooking in our house, and although I grew up in the era when convenience and fast foods were the epitome of "modern" eating, she still managed to instill in me a sense of the importance of ingredients and making good food for the family. My mother was born and raised in Japan but came to the American midwest with my father. On the American Thanksgiving holiday, she made turkey and dressing and all the other traditional dishes, and for New Year's Eve, she made sushi and sukiyaki. Clearly, this helped me develop a sort of universal interest in food.

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