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The Cooking Show Paradox

How multimodal mental imagery can explain some of our TV obsessions.

Source: Pexels

Why do we watch so many TV shows about cooking and baking? Why are they so consistently popular? A tempting explanation would be that we learn from them; they can teach us little tricks in the kitchen and help to expand our culinary repertoire. But this is not it. Why do we watch a half-hour program to learn how to make an éclair when we could just read the recipe in a minute?

We have a real paradox here.

One way out of this paradox is to seriously consider the concept of multimodal mental imagery. When we watch cooking shows, what we see leads to gustatory mental imagery of the flavor and taste and odor of the food we watch being made.

But what is multimodal mental imagery? Sometimes we hear something and have involuntary visual imagery. This is an instance of multimodal mental imagery: mental imagery in one sense modality (vision) that is triggered by another sense modality (hearing). Or the other way round: We can see something, and we have involuntary auditory imagery.

A prosaic example is watching TV with the sound muted. If you see someone talk whom you have heard often before (say, the president), you may have conscious auditory mental imagery; you hear his distinctive tone of voice with your mind’s ear. But even if you don’t have this conscious experience (there are huge variations in individuals' vividness and strength of mental imagery), the neurons in your early auditory cortices are going crazy despite the silence of the muted TV.

In this example, the multimodal mental imagery is the result of the interaction between vision and hearing. But the same is true of taste and flavor perception. A somewhat obvious example of this would be the "high-concept" restaurants where you eat in the dark, not knowing what exactly is being served to you. It is difficult not to try to visualize what it is on your plate.

A much more sophisticated example is the following: Some chefs actively experiment with multimodal mental imagery. They confront you with flavors that trigger visual imagery of certain colors, and then they play with the interaction between these colors. Sometimes the colors that the flavors bring to mind will clash, whether you want them or not. Sometimes they harmonize. And often you’re not even fully aware that what strikes you as disconcerting in what you eat has nothing to do with its flavor–it has to do with the color it has made you visualize.

Back to the Cooking Show Paradox. Watching cooking shows is eating vicariously in the most literal sense possible—we get mental imagery of tasting and smelling the food without actually tasting or smelling it. We watch cooking shows because we enjoy the multimodal mental imagery our visual experience leads to. And without any extra calories.