Brain Food, or why the mind is like a soufflé

When I first began to study the relationship between food and the imagination, I couldn’t help but notice how many idioms of thinking, reading, and learning use the language of cooking and eating.  We devour books if we enjoy consuming them; we may need some time to digest.  Alternately, you might stew over something, or ruminate (a favorite of mine, as I enjoy imagining myself as a dewy-eyed quadruped, ambling over hills and slowly chewing a mouthful of ideas). An idea itself might be said to be “half-baked”–and that is the starting point of this excerpt from Ferris Jabr’s The Neuroscience of 20-Somethings, quoted by Brainpicker Maria Popova.

“To reflect the ongoing structural changes in the adolescent and twenty-something brain, many journalists and scientists use words and phrases like “unfinished,” “work in progress,” “under construction” and “half-baked.” Such language implies that the brain eventually reaches a kind of ideal state when it is “done.” But there is no final, optimal state. The human brain is not a soufflé that gradually expands over time and finally finishes baking at age 30.”

I see his point.  Metaphors only ever have imperfect relationships with the concepts they describe, and Jabr very succintly describes the hole in the conceptualization of the brain as a cooking project, even if a very delicate one.

But there must be a good reason that we so frequently borrow the language of eating and cooking to describe the process of brainwork.  Food and thought are primal: we can no better survive without thinking than without eating, so perhaps it’s natural that we visualize our invisible processes of the mind with the sensory mechanisms of tasting, cooking, and eating.  And no matter how perfect or satisfying the meal, hunger always returns and compels us to seek, cook, and eat again.  In that respect, I find the image of the mind as a soufflé even more compelling: it takes knowledge and experience to make a good soufflé, and even if you master the process, you’ll never eat the same soufflé twice.

There’s room in that metaphor to expand.

Zucchero by Sara Asnaghi

Brain made of sugar, from the series “What Have You Got in Your Head?” by Sara Asnaghi

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