The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Dining Blind

Eating while floating in a sea of darkness

imageThere is an enormous amount of trust we show to strangers without even paying attention to it: the pilot flying your airplane, the chef preparing your dinner, or the taxi driver taking you across town. We often trust strangers with our lives, blind to their identities or intentions. We do this because most of the time it works out just fine. I experienced an extreme form of stranger-trust when I went to dinner with friends at a trendy "dine in the dark" restaurant in Los Angeles. These restaurants, first started in Zurich, Switzerland by blind clergyman Jürg Spielmann, seat you in a pitch black dining room where you are served by blind waitstaff. After we had ordered our meals in a dimly-lighted reception area, our blind waitress Kathy had us line up behind her at the door to the dining area and put one hand on shoulder of the person in front of us. We shuffled into the pitch black room hearing others talking and silverware clinking on plates. Directions were passed back from the person ahead to the person behind. "Small step in coming up." "Turn sharply to the right." Soon we were seated and we instinctively felt the table for size. I encountered a wall behind me and beyond it I touched the doughy shoulder of someone at the next table and apologized.

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My senses were on high alert, searching in vain for landmarks. My tablemates said they were doing the same. How big was this room? How could we ever get out? Then we heard snapping fingers as Kathy was returning from the kitchen and was signaling her path to the other blind waitstaff. We had to touch her to get our food and return plates we had emptied. Initially, I also touched my tablemates to alert them I wanted to talk. After a while, I just spoke up during a conversation lull using a name to get attention. I found myself not even turning toward the person I was speaking to--there was no reason to. The novelty of having no visual input subsided in about 20 minutes and I felt Iike I was just floating in dark space. The food was enjoyable, and I mostly ate with my fingers. Spearing lettuce leaves or scooping up risotto in the dark was a low yield process. Without visual cues, time also slowed down. It was one of the most relaxing meals I've ever had. We spent a total of three hours at dinner, but it could have been one hour, or six. Re-entering the dim reception area, we all found it took several minutes to get over the feeling of floating in a sea of darkness. What had I eaten? Was it undercooked or burnt? I had no clue. I simply trusted those who had agreed to serve me.

 

 

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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