Stop dialling and enjoy your dining

When it comes to cooking and eating, you need to switch your brain off to get all the benefits

When you sat down at the table in that lovely restaurant, did you check your messages or switch off?  Photograph: Thinkstock

When you sat down at the table in that lovely restaurant, did you check your messages or switch off? Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, Aug 26, 2014, 01:00

So, summer 2014 winds down and it’s time to clean up the rented house, load up the car and get back to the big smoke.

And heading back home with you will be those precious memories: the cycle on the Great Western Greenway; snorkelling and spotting dogfish in west Cork; driving the Healy Pass on a fine, sunny day; the taste of Copper Coast ale at the end of a day touring the Copper Coast itself; the craic of the Galway races.

But what if that’s not actually your story from summer 2014? What if you had an Obama summer? You know how it is: you’re the Potus, you’re just ready to take off for Martha’s Vineyard for a fortnight, and the world explodes. IS in Iraq. Putin in Ukraine. Ebola in Africa. Trigger-happy cops in Ferguson. And, in the middle of it all, Hillary turning up at the same fundraiser.

Heading home, you don’t feel refreshed. You feel tense and irritable, you haven’t been sleeping right, and your brain aches. What with the texts and having to check your email, you feel you haven’t had a moment of peace, a moment to yourself. Summer? What summer?

If you have had an Obama summer, then it’s a real problem. With advances in brain sciences, we are realising that the ability to shut off – to engage what the scientist and researcher Daniel J Levitin calls the “task-negative network” of our brain – is an essential tool for keeping the brain healthy, thereby keeping you healthy and functioning at your best.

Levitin’s research posits a two-part system in our brain.

The task-positive network kicks in when we are focused on a task – think of it as an Ikea flat-pack attention booster – and need to understand and complete the task.

The task-negative network kicks in when we listen to music, spend a day walking the Wild Atlantic Way, or visit a farmer’s market and buy delicious things, and then start to dream about what we will do with them at dinnertime.

Need to switch off

The task-negative side of things is vital for a simple reason: we can process only so much information. For our health, we desperately need to switch off.

The added benefit of task-negative time is that it makes us sharper when it comes to task-positive time.

Ask yourself this question about your own positive-negative networks: when you sat down at the table in that lovely restaurant in Dingle, or in Portstewart, did you first look at your phone in order to check the messages?

Or did you reach for your phone in order to switch it off, then put it away and look at the menu and the wine list, and think about how much you were going to enjoy dinner?

If you checked your messages, then you didn’t allow a little part of your brain called the insula to switch your thinking from task-positive to task-negative. You didn’t allow your brain to reset from task-positive to task-negative.

The ability to switch from positive to negative is important because, if we do it too little, we get less good at switching. If you checked your messages and got a text you really would have preferred not to have read, then you would have spent the meal flipping between attention-negative – what a lovely restaurant; what a lovely glass of wine – and attention-positive; how could she say that? What am I going to do now?

But if you had switched off your phone and said to yourself, “This is me time,” then you would have got all the benefits of attention-negative. You would have chilled out, baby. Just like when you swam in the bay, kayaked the lake, walked the Twelve Bens, lit the barbecue and opened a can of beer.

Cooking and eating So, when it comes to cooking and eating, you need to be attention-negative to get all the benefits. Cooking should be a relaxed, creative activity.

If you are focused on cooking a specific dish that requires a lot of complicated techniques and a long list of ingredients, you are going to be switched on to task-positive behaviour.

Instead of being a proposal, the recipe instead suddenly becomes a catechism, demanding your obedience rather than liberating your creativity.

But if you had simply walked around the farmers’ market during your holiday, picking up whatever caught your attention, whatever was new and local and fresh, the chances are that when you brought them all to the table that evening, your dinner would have been a simple, delicious celebration of task-negative creativity.

So remember: switching is easy, and you can’t have a positive without a negative. John McKenna is the author of Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way. See guides.ie

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