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December 20th, 2018
When we sit down for a great meal, what exactly is the best part of that meal? The 14th bite of food? Do we even remember the 14th bite of food? Or even really notice it as it happens? Most likely not
The experience of food is all at the beginning and maybe a little at the end. It’s those first couple bites that seem to have the most pleasure. After that it’s often more about finishing the meal than it is paying acute attention to how full our stomach is, or will be since there’s a delay designed into the appetite and satiation mechanisms we have for food.
Our attention and focus about what we are experiencing might come back on line at the very end with the last couple bites when the anticipation of the end is rising.
But for the most part we are going about one of the most sought after experiences with very little presence and mindfulness. It’s not just ironic, it tells you something fundamental about the brain’s mechanisms for motivation and fulfillment. It’s a sad truth that we are often motivated to obtain things and experiences that only offer the most fleeting sense of pleasure and rarely have much contribution to an overall sense of well-being.
But what is of greater interest here is the pattern and process of eating a meal. It is literally accomplished by breaking down a large whole into small pieces. We literally accomplish the act of eating a meal through bite-sized pieces. And yet, this all-too-appropriate language is actually rarely used to describe what it literally refers too. Along with this bite-sized progress, we find the most pleasure at the beginning and perhaps at the end. This portioning and swing in pleasure is a pattern that curiously also maps on to the process of solving a problem, except that pleasure is swapped out for difficulty.
Any problem of sufficient size requires breaking down into smaller portions. Part of the art of solving problems is figuring out how much to bite off and chew on. If we don’t breakdown the problem into small enough pieces, we may lose momentum with our problem solving because we have bitten off more than we can chew. Likewise, a piece too small might not be satisfying, and may make the problem seem larger than it is because we are breaking it into pieces so small that the number of pieces we need to chew is gargantuan.
When it comes to eating a meal, getting a handle on this portioning issue is quite natural. We all figure out quite quickly how much we can and should fit into our mouth to enjoy what we’re eating. But with problem solving, such sizing is much more difficult and since problems can vary so drastically, portioning a size of the problem in which to break off can often require an index of mental models in order to judge with any kind of accuracy.
Another way that the experience of eating maps on to this idea of problem solving is our variance in motivation. At the beginning of the meal is when our anticipation is greatest and our experience of pleasure is most present. This is in accord to the difficulty of problem solving. Often the hardest part of solving a problem is simply beginning. And likewise with attention coming back online at the end of a meal, difficulty paradoxically seems to rise as we have the end in sight with regards to an accomplishment we’ve been working on.
This paradigm of eating can be useful when staring a problem in the face. We can ask simple questions inspired by the daily experience of eating.
We might ask: am I working on a piece of this puzzle that is just too big? Or perhaps too small? Is it even a real piece of the puzzle? Or am I trying to chew the plate instead of the food?
Regardless, it’s food for thought for the next time we find ourselves stuck.