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Neuroplasticity in the Kitchen

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, April 17, 2017


Listen to the cake, hear the heart beat of the pie

Christine Ha is a blind cook who won the third season of the frenetic TV cooking competition “Master Chef.”

She says her fingertips “became her eyes.”   A New York Times story by Julia Moskin explains her cooking expertise began when she used touch, hearing, smell and taste to reverse-engineer her late mother’s deep fried spring rolls.  Her fingertips tell her the pliability of the wrappers. She learned the sound the bubbling oil makes when she tosses in a bit of filling to identify the right temperature. She can tap the frying rolls with tongs to tell if the shells are crisp and blistered.

David Linden, a neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins University, explains that when people can’t see, their senses of hearing and touch are intensified.  In fact, the parts of the brain dedicated to visual data shrink and the parts that receive information from the ear and touch sensitive nerve endings grow larger.  Linden is the author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind.

Kate McDermott, who was a professional musician before she began leading intensive professional baking seminars, has always experienced the world through sound. Moskin quotes her as saying the “heartbeat of the pie” is the “whump” sound it makes when the thickened filling bumps steadily against the top crust.   She’s been listening to pies for years and her book is The Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Crusts, Fillings and Life.

Edna Lewis, described by The Times as the doyenne of American southern cooking, advises bakers to listen to their cake: when those little bubbling and ticking sounds stop it’s done.

Baking isn’t the only specialty that benefits from the heightened sensory information that most recipes don’t mention. Moskin’s story describes how a multi-sensory approach also helps produce delicious main dishes and meats with the most sought after “mouthfeel.”  Linden, the neurobiologist, reports that the mouthfeel most universally appreciated across all human cultures is a crispy crust around a soft interior, as exemplified by the Middle Eastern falafel, Japanese tempura, Indian Samosas, and French fries.

Several studies show that when people are blind or deaf, their other senses become more highly developed.  However, Linden says no similar adaptation seems to happen when people lose their sense of taste and smell.  He says people who lose those two senses, a condition called anosmia, tend to lose interest in cooking and eating and are at increased risk for depression and suicide.  “The shared interest in food seems to one of the things that makes us human,” he said. 



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