Sapience: to Taste is to Know!  Did you know that the word "sapiens" in Homo Sapiens stems from Latin verb sapere which means "to taste, to be wise, to know"?  Yes: to taste is to know!  Some say: we are what we eat.  I say: we are how we eat.  

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Entries in mindless eating (2)


Pavlovian Sleight-of-Words

As a preface, let me note in advance, that this reading does not conform to most expectations. It will seem at times tangential and pointless but, I assure you, it builds a network of semantic associations that is designed to serve as a supportive net of words. Mind is only as healthy as the words that support it.

Mind, just like stomach, is subject to conditioning and programming. Ivan Pavlov, the first psychologist to be awarded a Nobel prize for the theory of Classical Conditioning in 1904, understood that the mind (just like body) imprints onto environmental stimuli like an orphan duckling and that the environment always works to enslave the mind in return. Pavlov, a Russian who knew his Slavic history, understood the stimulus-response dynamics of slavery. Let us break for a bit of etymological safari to clarify the sentence above.

Slave (n). circa 1290, "person who is the property of another," from O.Fr. esclave, from M.L. Sclavus "slave" (cf. It. schiavo, Fr. esclave, Sp. esclavo), originally "Slav," so called because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples.

(continue the mind-flow)

Pavlov, a Slav-descendant of slaves, whose scientific career spanned from pre-Soviet Russia into the era of Stalinist purges, did not allow himself to be turned into a propaganda dog of cultural conditioning. Instead he openly barked on the fast-growing sequoia of Stalinist dictatorship. While treasured by Lenin, Pavlov was only being tolerated by Lenin's successor, Stalin, but he refused to be conditioned and to have his mind enslaved. Pavlov, ever a free-mind responsible for his own de-programming and re-programming, wrote appeal-letters to no one less than Stalin, in what would have been construed, by the standards of that time, as nothing less than a daring tone. He knew how not to be a robot. Let us break for another bit of etymological safari to clarify the sentence above.

Robot (n). 1923, from Eng. translation of 1920 play "R.U.R." ("Rossum's Universal Robots"), by Karel Capek (1890-1938), from Czech robotnik "slave," from robota "forced labor, drudgery," from robotiti "to work, drudge," from an Old Czech source akin to Old Church Slavonic rabota "servitude," from rabu "slave."

(continue mind-flow)

The Soviets (just like Nazis) knew how to build a reflex. We did send up a couple of well-trained Pavlov-dogs into space - no small feat! We knew how to tow a party-line, but, as descendants of slaves, we also knew how to rebel against mind-numbing. The tradition of Soviet dissidence counts among its fallen hundreds of thousands of minds that dared not to be conditioned. During the Gulag days of the USSR, minds that refused to become robots became slaves in the Gulag. In the post-Gulag days, minds that refused to be conditioned turned off the TV and had heated debates about what's what in the privacy of Russian kitchens. Which brings me full-circle back to Pavlov's classical conditioning. But, as you guessed, let us break for yet another bit of etymological safari.

Paul (n.). masc. proper name, from L. Paulum (nom. Paulus), literally "small" (see paucity). Cf. O.Fr. Pol, It. Paolo, Sp. Pablo, Rus. Pavel

(continue mind-flow)

Pavlov, semantically a son of "small," "is a pillar of modern psychology and his contribution to this discipline is, probably larger than the contribution of any other person with the exception of Freud" (as Rubin Ardila noted in American Psychologsit in1969). I, just another English-speaking Russian with a name "Pavel," born in 1969, the year of American moon-landing, am positioned to make a much smaller difference, but one that, I believe, might be of personal interest to you. As you have noticed from the arguably strange format of this writing, there is a certain kind of circularity to it: I tell you something, I get your mind-flow going making new associations between familiar words that, hopefully, lead to, not exactly epiphanies, but minor yet possibly useful insights. And then bam! We pause for some silly etymological safari and look into the history of words. We break the mind-flow, awaken a bit, and then continue the mind-flow. What's happening here is designed to parallel the process of de-conditioning/re-conditioning that just might come in handy with the problem of overeating. That's right, my dear reader, I am still writing about mindless eating and how to make it mindful. You see, mindless eating is a classic conditioned reflex: for example, if you eat in front of TV, then after a while, TV and eating become associated with each other, so that when you turn on the TV, you automatically turn on your appetite and vice versa, when you sit down to eat, you turn on your appetite for TV. The result is - you guessed it - mindless programming and conditioning of the mind to go blank when you open your mouth. Let us break for one final etymology safari before we summarize all this tangential sleight-of-words into practical advice.

Television (n). formed in English or borrowed from Fr. télévision, from tele- + vision. The word "tele" stems from Greek tele- which means "far, far off." The word "vision" stems from videre "to see," from Proto-Indo-European base weid- which means "to know, to see" (e.g. Sankrit veda "I know").

(continue mind-flow)

As you see, the word "television" basically means "seeing what is not here," i.e. not seeing and not knowing what is here and now right in front of you. The Soviet way of de-programming from cultural programming was to come home, boil a few potatoes, warm up yesterday's cutlets and/or borsch, to maybe pour yourself a shot-glass of vodka or, for minors, a glass mug of kvas, and to talk about the Orwellian nonsense that is happening outside the family's kitchen, about where to find a pair of American denim jeans that fade on knees so as to not remain on slave-knees of Soviet propaganda. I'm stereotyping my own people, of course, but I don't think they are that ego-frail to mind. In a nutshell, the Soviets kept themselves awake... over eating... by turning off the official TV and tuning in to each other and their own selves. The American way, unfortunately, is in just the opposite direction: the land of the free has been enslaved by TV, by watching what is not here and by mindlessly ignoring what is in front of one's own nose. American mind, for decades, is being programmed to be an eating zombie. Americans aren't to blame: after all it was another Russian scientist, Boris Rosing, who invented the cathode ray tube in 1907 and gave the world a slave-driver in each living room.

So, here's my small, name-proportionate, attempt at waking up the sleeping/overeating beauty of America: make a small change, kill the TV-eating reflex. How? For starters, eat in the kitchen, not in the living room. Reclaim your eating moments one meal a time: small changes, you know, add up to new reflexes.

Break the pattern to restore your mind-flow. Program the following noun for yourself:

Self (n). - a slave to eating or a master of eating?

Make a choice of what to serve yourself: a sense of self-presence or another portion of mindlessness. Break out of your associative chains! Is it doable? Heck, you guys put a man on the moon...


Mindful Eating Tracker
(workshops in PA, MD, NJ, VA in April-May 2010)


Ruben Ardila, Nobel Prizes for Psychologists, American Psychologists, 1969, 24, pp. 604-605


The Chocolate Question: Indulge on Quality, not on Quantity, Eat the Most Expensive Chocolate You Can Afford!

From "Un-edited Q & A Series"



My name is K. C. and I am a journalism student. I am currently writing a piece on holiday chocolate purchases, and have discovered that, despite tight budgets from the economy, chocolate sales have increased this year. I'm wondering if this is due to chocolate's reputation as a stress reducer. I am looking for a psychological perspective on this situation. Could you please tell me if you feel chocolate is a natural stress reducer, if it is generally used to combat stress or negative feelings, and what the scientific reason for this is?

Thank you,



Hi K.:

Is chocolate a stress reducer? There are two ways to answer this: physiologically and psychologically. While there certainly has been research of late into possible psychoactive properties of chocolate, I am not up to date on the findings of that kind of research. So, I am not sure if chocolate works to relieve stress on a physiological level. From a psychological perspective, however, I see a clear stress-reduction pathway through conditioning and expectations.

Whenever we pair up a given stimulus (chocolate, in this case) with a given response (self-care through an episode of emotional eating), we are establishing a potentially reinforceable association and an expectation (that chocolate or some other treat will lead to stress reduction by way of self-care) in the future.

The end result is a potential conditioned stress reduction effect of chocolate or any other treat. That's how emotional eating works. We, in essence, begin to equate eating something pleasant and palatable to self-care: eating becomes coping. Armed with this habit or ritual, we begin to benefit from the conditioned relaxation effects of these rituals. A mere decision to have something pleasant to eat (not out of hunger but as a way of sensorically taking care of yourself - call it the "massage of the mouth," if you wish) might trigger a conditioned relaxation response.

As you are aware, chocolate has become a kind of canonical indulgence food - either due to its intrinsic properties and/or skillful marketing. The result is that when we buy high-end chocolate we intuitively expect a kind of foodgasm, a gustatory highlight, a pleasure... and this expectation in and of itself is the beginning of stress reduction and relaxation. It's no different than knowing that you have a weekend coming up and although any given Friday might be just as tense of a work day as Thursday, the mere promise of pending relief (weekend) begins to make a difference.

Tip: buy the most expensive chocolate. Why? The fancier the presentation, the higher the expectation; the higher the expectation, the more likely you are to be mindful when you eat it (b/c you'd want to get your money's worth); the more mindful you are when you eat chocolate, the more likely you are to slow down and get into the moment of the pleasure, i.e. the more likely it is that you will have a great "eating moment."

Unless you are a World War I pilot, still flying somewhere over Europe, the chances are you are not eating chocolate for fuel, but for pleasure. Whenever we eat for pleasure, by definition, we are engaging in emotional eating. But worry not: emotional eating - in and of itself - isn't a problem, it's the emotional over-eating that is the problem.
Infusing mindfulness into emotional eating leverages more coping per calorie. So, when you indulge, indulge on quality, not quantity.

ps: If you have a question, ask me!

Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist
Author of "Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating, One Meal at a Time"