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The Neuroscience of Baking ?

“The more you know, the more you can create. There’s no end to imagination in the kitchen.” ~ Julia Child.

(For those who do not bake, much of this applies to cooking as well.)


I was thinking about baking, maybe because it is cold and rainy, or as it is almost Valentine’s day which I associate with sharing love and chocolate goodies! That started me thinking about the science of baking. No, not the magical, chemical alchemy that is baking, but the act of baking. And that got me thinking about the brain, because for me, unlike the Romans, “All roads lead to the brain.”

 

Baking is a creative activity that engages the whole brain with sensory, motor, memory and cognitive tasks.  For example, let’s say you decide to bake something for Valentine’s day. First, the idea forms in your head, prompted by a memory or an external stimulus – like conversation with someone, or seeing a picture. Already you are engaged in a most human cognitive endeavor – mental time travel. The present stimulus triggers a memory – maybe of making and eating cupcakes with your mom, and then you imagine the future where you have made those amazing cupcakes and are sharing them with someone you care about and making them feel loved. Your brain simulates what that would actually taste and feel like, and you are hooked.


In terms of the neuroscience, just to get this far, you have already used your whole brain of course, but especially frontal cortex and insula, hippocampus and amygdala, temporal lobes, temporo-parietal junction, association pathways of white matter that connect various of the above, and brain networks including the default mode network. You have engaged cognitive capacities like Creativity, Imagination, Recall of memory, Visualization and Theory of Mind (the capacity to understand others’ mental states), and you have only just begun!


Of course you can dream without restraint, but at some point you have to use your judgement and prefrontal cortex to decide exactly what kind of cupcakes you will make, weighing your skill, time, cost, and access to tools.  Still, there are plenty of opportunities for creativity here – which shape, color, flavor, additives, artful decorations, packaging etc. Thinking about these stimulates multisensory networks involving several parts of the brain. Your prefrontal cortex continues to toil as you must plan and make a list to buy or gather ingredients and tools you will need. You may have to be flexible and adapt, or experiment if some component is not available. Whether you tend follow a recipe or wing it, you must focus on measuring and adding all the right stuff in the proper order. You need good working memory to read and remember, or retrieve learned recipe instructions, and attention plus impulse-control to step-wise execute them.

Now, you may quibble with this next suggestion, but try bypassing kitchen machine aids and using your own power and hands to beat or whip ingredients and mix and pour the batter. That uses signals from your motor cortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum, and requires you to focus on the sensory and motor stimuli at hand, which may well get you into a mindful state of relaxation and flow. Researchers have found that routinely focusing on and carrying out small creative tasks like baking and cooking improves people’s mental and emotional states, and their outlook for the future.


Finally, when all is ready, there is the wonderful warmth of the oven, the smell of baking, and the pride at beholding the lovely thing you have created. The sense of accomplishment as well as your plan to share with others will prompt a flood of endorphins and feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Smell and taste have strong and immediate connections to the hippocampus and memory, as well as to amygdala and emotions. So, as you sit down to the first bite of your delicious creation, you may find, like Proust, that “an exquisite pleasure has invaded the senses…” and your mind is off “in search of lost time.” 

OK, if you are like me, there will definitely be times when you miscalculate and must correct or compensate for whatever went horribly wrong with your baking project. But then you get to practice self-compassion, flex your problem-solving skills, pull out your growth mindset, and try again. Your brain will be all the better for it, and you will have a story to tell.

“Flour and butter, cream and sugar, words and images – all the ingredients for a rich, tasty story.” ~ Rona Simmons.

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Post by: Nadia Fike


Read more: 1. Conner, TS et al (2016). Everyday creative activity as a path to flourishing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13 (2), 181-189 2. T. Vanderah, T et al (2021). Nolte's The Human Brain: An Introduction to Its Functional Anatomy. 8th edition. Philadelphia, PA, Elsevier.

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