Mindcooking: mind and body in communication through the discovery of flavors

Mindcooking: mind and body in communication through the discovery of flavors

Memories, images, sensations, thoughts and emotions, all this sensoriality, starting for example from a simple olfactory stimulus, is able to evoke a subjective state of well-being and to tell a lot about us and our personal history. But is it possible to make this process, spontaneous and natural, something repeatable?


Advertising message Imagine walking through the rainy streets of our city. The day is gray like the previous week’s by now. Our mood is not the best after having dedicated an important slice of our free morning to find a parking space in the center to go to a common practice. We are consciously or unconsciously ruminating on the traffic faced, on the arrogance of the other drivers, on why it is not possible nowadays to carry out such banal bureaucratic practices online. “Here, but tell me if this is the way to keep a road!”. We walk around an alley trying to catch up on minutes, so maybe we’ll be able to get there just in time to pick up the kids from school. “Hell, is it today that I have to go swimming with them?”

But something breaks into this negative flow. It is familiar, direct, intense, but above all good. The scent of freshly baked bread overlooks the back of a bakery that we are working alongside. In our mind there are two possible ways to go. In the first, an image transforms our thoughts, emotions. Everything is a little less gray. For a few seconds our mental state has changed. We may be aware of it or unaware of it, but it is undeniable that something is happening in us. In the second street, we lose the moment and return after a few puddles progressively to the gray morning ready to bounce between the branches of the municipality. If our mind can hold onto that moment, then something continues to change. Our steps may change pace. The attention would immediately focus on the present and as we lift our nose our breath deepens, supporting the need to stay as much as possible on that perfume. Each of us immersed in such an experience will have a completely subjective internal mental state, an experience that Marcel Proust describes as follows:

Memories, images, sensations, thoughts and emotions, all this sensoriality is released in our secondary sensory cortex (Sacco, Sacchetti, 2010) evoking a subjective state of well-being that is able to tell a lot about us and our personal history. A door to our internal states is open, the key? A modest olfactory stimulus.

The questions are simple and essential: what can be done to make this process, spontaneous and natural, something repeatable? How can we recall him in a moment of need? Would being more aware of this phenomenon allow us to learn more about ourselves?

From these questions arise reflections shared between colleagues, probably united also by the passion for food, we started to develop an idea: Mindcooking. Psychotherapy offers a generous repertoire of tools and questions. The clearance of these from a purely clinical context has allowed us to develop a procedure capable of creating an interactive sensorial experience with food in which anyone can participate.

Our attempt was to try to create an experiential situation where it was possible to try to increase our awareness through food. Create a procedure that is re-evocable, intense and profound using simple techniques. The goal is to create an enrichment to one’s internal experience where the participants can discover how their memories act and how the sensory states they experience are connected to them, considering both the pleasant and positive aspects as well as the negative ones that can arise.

The initial step through which such a process can be initiated is basically one: awareness.

When we say we are present and aware in the here and now we are basically describing a state of mindfulness. We are all potentially able to transit in a similar state, it can happen several times during the day, but bringing our mind intentionally and keeping it on awareness is another matter. Being present with a conscious attention on what happens in us, in our mind and in our body and outside of us, in the environment that surrounds us is a conquest that is obtained and that improves with practice.

In the clinic, the practice of mindfulness is increasingly widespread. Over the years, various application protocols have been imprinted that have exploited the potential of mindfulness on clinical problems (Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, Burney, 1985) and on specific problems related to eating disorders (Epstein, 1995; Ray, 1981), (Kristeller & Hallett, 1999). From the latter, the panorama of Mindful Eating develops. There are several efficacy studies (Mason, Epel, Kristeller, et al., 2016; Mason, Jhaveri, Cohn, Brewer, Testing, 2018). One of the main purposes is to achieve non-judgmental awareness of the physical and emotional sensations associated with eating. Hence our choice to extrapolate from these programs some techniques to be included in the construction of our Mindcooking experience.

Our ideas are inspired by Interpersonal Metacognitive Therapy (Dimaggio et al., 2013; 2019) and have the aim of gradually guiding the subject to explore his inner world and become increasingly aware of himself, in particular of some links between stimuli sensory (which come from food), knowledge and affections. In Mindcooking we do not pretend to bring the participants to high levels of metacognition, but we use some techniques in order to make some hours of experience with food more intense and increase awareness of one’s inner world.

Mindcooking can be a time to increase contact with our positive states, nourishing our positive perception of us. In the same way, however, it is also possible that negative mental states can also be elicited in this experience; in this case, a brief intervention is foreseen in the experience where it is possible to understand how to manage such sensations.

In this regard, what we try to do in the first hypothesis, through a mindful awareness, is to try to keep our mind on the present trying to identify or recall positive sensations, in order to feed what we call our healthy part. Otherwise, in case of activation of negative or unpleasant sensations we will try to guide the subject to the acceptance of these sensations in order to try to understand then how to “let them go”.

This represents a way to distance yourself from any negative states present in us that tell us “No you can’t have this” or “This pleasure you can’t try” trying to go back to feeding the “Like!” or “This gives me well-being”.

Mindcooking is an experience in which it is possible to attempt a small enrichment of one’s awareness also by trying to recall food-related sensations in our past. Of course, this is not the kind of awareness that is rich and capable of leading to a structural change, that remains typical of psychotherapy. With Mindcooking we want to increase self-knowledge and the discovery of the ability to be able to act on one’s mental states.

The goal is to create a slightly clearer and more marked trace of this process in order to take it home and keep it and then use it as a conscious and practical tool whenever you want to evoke a positive state of well-being or that little bit of awareness on the hypothesis that a negative feeling can also dissipate if we learn not to feed it.

The Mindcooking experience can essentially be carried out in two ways: “hands in dough” or “tasting”. The elements common to both are that: a chef prepares the different courses, the participants first taste them and then follow a moment of shared reflection. Food and the individual are interconnected through the integration of sensory experiences. The difference between the two situations is that in “mani in pasta” there are also workstations for cooking following the chef, thus putting himself at the forefront in the preparation of what he will then eat. The choice of mode depends a lot on the availability of the Chef and the dining room, since 12 individual workstations are not always available and equipped with the necessary tools and ingredients, Masterchef style as it were.

In practice, the Mindcooking experience consists of four courses: appetizer, first course, second course, dessert. The chef will take into consideration the fact that the five senses must be involved in each of the four courses; for example, in tasting the appetizer you can pay more attention to what the sight suggests and the perceptions it arouses in terms of emotions, sensations, images and thoughts. After attention to sight, the tasting focuses on taste, and this will lead to look for any perceptual differences.

The same experience can be made with the sense of smell, the participants will smell the dish keeping their eyes closed. Then we move on to exploration by opening our eyes and tasting (smell integrated into the taste). The sense of smell is a particularly important sense in the Mindcooking experience because the brain areas dedicated to the processing of olfactory information have connections with the areas dedicated to emotions and autobiographical memory (Gottfried et al. 2004). In these situations the Mindcooking experience helps to stay in the present by connecting with all the sensations and emotions elicited by the memory, if positive, strengthening them through the integration of the various senses; thus creating a virtuous circle in which the sensory elements evoke emotions and images and in turn these elicit a memory that enriches the experience of new images, emotions and sensations. Mind and body begin to communicate consciously with each other.

The participant can therefore reach the awareness that the integration of multiple senses opens the mind and body to a more extensive, above all emotional, experience. What emerges by comparing the images, ideas, emotions, emerged by exploring with the five senses, will then be shared in the next moment of discussion.

It is possible that, during the experience, the participants come into contact mainly with two types of mental images: with positive and negative content.

When the emerging image is positive, the conductors invite the participant to linger on it and to integrate the sensations and emotions experienced, making them their own and recording them, putting the sensory, emotional and cognitive part in communication.

If the elicited image had a negative content, with unpleasant emotions and sensations, it is important to work towards focusing on the present (Garland et al. 2015; 2016). The negative image and the connected emotions are noticed, but participants are invited to let go of these negative activations without criticism or judgment, instead inviting them to explore in a curious way what they face. The conductors, for example, can invite them to open their eyes and taste the dish focusing on the diversity of flavors, textures and smells. The curious and non-judgmental exploration of the present, especially starting from an image with a negative content, offers the possibility to regulate negative emotions, to integrate mind and body until the participant discovers that he can indeed experience unpleasant sensations, but to master them in the here and now through the mindful exercise combined with food. Usually at this point, the image and the previous sensations become more faded to leave room for sensory integration, giving rise to the awareness of managing unpleasant emotions.

In the following shared reflection, the whole path is made explicit starting from the emergence of a negative emotion. The goal, we summarize, is to make the individual aware of the possible management of negative / painful states by focusing on the present and above all through the integration of different pathways of sensory perception, while activating a curious exploration of the present.

When instead the evoked experience is positive, the work aims to allow the person to fully enjoy it, amplifying the mind / body connection and integrating the different information from the 5 senses to learn to dwell on the perceptions in contact with the immediate reality of the tasted flow .

Advertising message Overall, this curious and conscious exploration through food is an additional tool that helps the individual in two ways: to understand that negative sensations, images or memories can be let go, focusing on the here and now of perception in a curious exploration integrating the information coming from the 5 senses to be aware of being able to act by recovering a state of well-being and above all being able to do it.

At the same time Mindcooking can teach you to enhance pleasant events and recover them when needed. Some have proposed behavioral techniques and attention allocation to encourage the persistence of positive states: the so-called “savoring” consists of dwelling on positive states of past experiences, present and imagined in the future (Bryant, 2003-2007) . Much research confirms that positive affects play an active role in the individual’s well-being (Langston, 1994). Thus, mastering a recovery strategy of a positive state increases motivation and has positive effects on behavior in relation to a greater perception of satisfaction in one’s life (Smith & Bryant, 2016; Smith & Hollinger-Smith, 2015), greater perception of good health (Geiger, Morey, & Segerstrom, 2017), general well-being and happiness (Smith & Hollinger-Smith, 2015), low perception of depression and negative emotional states (Garland et al., 2017; Hou et al., 2017; Smith & Hollinger-Smith, 2015) . A path of conscious change of the individual is therefore outlined, starting from the promotion of positive states and from keeping them in consciousness. “Savoring” allows individuals to maximize pleasure and satisfaction by creating adaptive repetitive thoughts (Segerstrom et al., 2010). We can evoke them through bodywork, shifting attention or by adopting specific behaviors, such as the Mindcooking experience. The cognitive and motivational processes benefit from the positive state that the individual has contacted and it becomes easier to give him access to further positive reflections, tackle more motivated tasks and plan long-term beneficial activities. It will also be easier to favor a higher-level, more detached point of view from which to observe the suffering parts of oneself (Dimaggio et al., 2013; 2019).

We tell a Mindcooking experience, created thanks to a Chef who wanted to experiment and get involved in a creative way, actively participating also in the discussions on the dishes.

On this occasion, chance wanted Lorenzo, the curious explorer Chef, to be one of the two owners of the splendid bistro where we would have had the Mindcooking experience. The other owner, Riccardo, took care of the management in the room for the duration of the event. The event was of the tasting type.

The menu was chosen by the Chef following a briefing with the two therapists who then led the experience: four courses balanced in all their parts to allow complete sensory exploration. The briefing basically aimed to communicate to the Chef, for each course, the senses that were most stimulated and, based on these instructions, he prepared the dishes. At that point the two conductors built targeted exercises together with the diners to then find themselves all in the discussion phase at the end of the course.

The menu specially chosen by Chef Lorenzo was this:

The bistro atmosphere is warm and familiar. Vintage objects such as grandmother’s phone and copper lamps decorate the room. A large table for 12 people is ready for the participants in the event in a dedicated corner near the large wooden counter where Riccardo awaits us. After everyone has taken a seat, the Mindcooking experience can begin.

A brief introduction with the instructions to be followed during the experiential tasting, as described above, and a subsequent moment to get in touch with your body and your own sensoriality, give way to the first course: the appetizer.

During the appetizer tasting, the sensorial focus is on the sight trying to observe emotions, thoughts and images that the dish arouses. Then Chef Lorenzo presents the dish and after tasting (taste) emotions, sensations, thoughts and images are observed again. The participants all take note of the changes and then discuss them together. Different emotions and images emerge. “I felt guilty because I imagined that the cannolo was a rolled porchetta skin, but when I tasted it the guilt left room for surprise and then enjoyed with pleasure …”, “Surprise because I had imagined it was sweet, but after taste my perception has changed … “.

The first course is served while the Chef presents the course and we all focus, at first glance, on the tactile and auditory exploration of the dish. Usually conscious attention to touch and hearing, while tasting a dish, is not absolutely automatic: it is important to train these two senses to the perceptions that refer to us. Next we observe the differences between visual experience, in terms of emotions, sensations, thoughts and images aroused, and gustatory experience. Here, too, the participants take note of the differences, of what they notice and discuss them together. The first impressions that emerge are related to the curious exploration: “I played with my senses and I discovered that by tasting the pot everything I had previously explored, I put it together and I felt all the senses connected, but at the same time I distinguished the individual perceptions. Then I recognized the flavors separately, but also together, everything worked … “.

It’s time to close your eyes to let the second plate enter the room. It is served to participants who remain with their eyes closed. When the smoking of beech smoke is released, images, emotions, sensations and thoughts come to life with lightning-fast immediacy. The sense of smell instantly refers to emotional experiences, sometimes painful. We then proceed with a moment of mindfulness where we all concentrate on the here and now of the experience, we become aware of the points of contact of our body with the table, the floor, the chair, we accept with benevolence the sensations and emotions that they pervade us, we spread them a red carpet to let them stay in our inn, we clench our fists to increase the agency and perceived self-efficacy. Then you open your eyes to carry out the olfactory experience with your eyes open and, after the presentation of the Chef, proceed with the tasting, noting the perceptual differences and what the experience has aroused in us, and then discussing them together. “It was immediate connection with a very clear image of my childhood, pleasant in the past, painful in the present, in remembering it I felt sadness. The exercise of mindfulness with all those smells still present, instead brought me back to the pleasantness of that experience, I felt that memory again as such but pleasant, the tasting then confirmed all this, I was left with a feeling of nostalgia, but I also recovered the pleasure of those moments together … “. noting the differences in perception and what the experience aroused in us, and then discussing them together. “The connection with an image of my childhood was very clear, pleasant in the past, painful in the present, in remembering it I felt sadness. The exercise of mindfulness with all those smells still present, instead brought me back to the pleasantness of that experience, I felt that memory again as such but pleasant, the tasting then confirmed all this, I was left with a feeling of nostalgia, but I also recovered the pleasure of those moments together … “. noting the differences in perception and what the experience aroused in us, and then discussing them together. “The connection with an image of my childhood was very clear, pleasant in the past, painful in the present, in remembering it I felt sadness. The exercise of mindfulness with all those smells still present, instead brought me back to the pleasantness of that experience, I felt that memory again as such but pleasant, the tasting then confirmed all this, I was left with a feeling of nostalgia, but I also recovered the pleasure of those moments together … “.

The Mindcooking experience ends with the sweet, great anticipation of the evening. After a brief introduction on focusing our attention on contrasts, Chef Lorenzo presents the dish and we can move on to tasting. The contrasts dominate the scope and the attention is placed on the resonance that the contrasts of flavor, sweet and salty, give us: physical or emotional? Both? The discussion will be animated. As for the appetizer, a lot of amazement emerges and the confirmation that perceptions change adding a wider sensorial focus to the experience: “it looked like the classic chocolate salami, instead the salty part, the consistency of the biscuit that had remained crunchy, the cocoa bitter and mango mousse dessert, they surprised me, I felt them all together, but distinct,

In conclusion, various emotions emerge in the various discussions, always connected to clear and sharp images. Participants became aware that they tended to actively seek confirmation of their initial perceptions, which changed after the introduction of other perceptual channels. These conscious exploratory exercises help to change our initial point of view, not to remain attached to our prejudices and to understand how what we think, at a first impact, of reality does not always correspond to it after a consciously exploratory and integrated analysis. This is what in Interpersonal Metacognitive Therapy we call differentiation (Dimaggio et al., 2013; 2019) and through the body we can train our mind to be more careful and flexible.

The result of these reflections can be summarized by a phrase, shared by a participant at the end of the Mindcooking experience: “I went out on the sofas out for a cigarette before the beginning of the experience and then I went now, at the end of the experience , and I noticed a centerpiece on the coffee table, however beautiful and large, which I had not noticed at all before. I have certainly expanded my experience of the world, to also regulate negative images and to live senses in an unusual way. I understand that we use them very little completely and that they often deceive us if we do not integrate them together. When the mind creates an expectation it is difficult to disengage from it, it is important to linger “.

The food for thought confirms the general difficulty that people have to detach themselves from a perceptive impression, negative or positive that it is, but also the possibility of going beyond what it is, literally a pre-judgment, and opening up to the novelty of the experience. In this they help the attention and the integration of the perceptions coming from the five senses, as well as, with the mindfulness exercise. The latter is of fundamental help in negative perceptual moments and food can be a valid means of recovering a positive mental, physical and emotional state but above all an element that trains us to explore with observational curiosity. Mindcooking is a perceptual and sensory experience that trains the mind and body to communicate with each other.