You Are What You Eat (and Do): Why You Might Not Want to Give Up Chocolate For Lent

Part of Lenten Series: You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life 

At first glance, the concept of Embodied Cognition looks more like a whackadoodle academic program than serious research. But could it be scientific evidence for an ancient Christian practice?

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Tom Bartlett reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education (below) that eating chocolate and other sweets can actually make you a sweeter person.

In one experiment, the researchers gave 58 undergraduates either a Hershey’s Kiss or an Altoids Tangerine Sour. Posttreat, those who had eaten a Kiss rated themselves as feeling more agreeable than those who had sucked an Altoid.

That’s not terribly shocking. Maybe chocolate puts people in a slightly better mood. Fine.

What’s harder to wrap my head around is an experiment that linked a fondness for sweet foods with a willingness to help others. First, the 108 participants (undergrads again) filled out a survey in which they rated how much they liked salty, sour, and sweet foods.

They were then asked whether they would be willing to help dispose of sandbags. The question isn’t as random as it sounds: There had been a flood in the area, and millions of sandbags needed to be removed. The way the question was framed, the participants might reasonably have believed that they were committing to help out with the cleanup.

Here’s what Robinson found: People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

kids eating candyAt first glance, this concept of Embodied Cognition looks more like some new whackadoodle academic program than serious research. But could it be scientific evidence for an ancient Christian practice?

Late USC professor Dallas Willard and other spiritual formation experts, note that most of what we call “character” consists in what our bodies are “at the ready” to do in specific situations. This means that our inclinations towards evil literally inhabit our body—our tongue, our eyes, our hands, our stomachs, etc.—in such a way that genuine Christlikeness is very much connected to the retraining our bodies for good (Renovation of the Heart, 159, 162, 166).

Willard asserted that no matter how badly we might wish to follow Christ, we cannot transform ourselves by sheer force of our will. We may know that loving our neighbor is Christ’s ideal and even wish to obey, but that desire alone is usually not enough to keep us from, say, speaking in anger when our neighbor’s dog ruins our freshly seeded lawn. If that ‘neighbor’ is a family member with whom we have often engaged in escalating war of words, we might even hear words coming out of our mouth that we vowed we would never say again just a few moments earlier. This embodiment of our sin all but guarantees that “little can be done in the moment of need to help one do the good thing Jesus commands” (90-94).

We are very much like an obese man who is suddenly offered a one million dollar price if he can finish a marathon in under four hours. No matter how badly he wants the money, he simply cannot roll out of bed the next morning and claim his prize. It is physically impossible. However, if this man is willing to devote himself to disciplining his body to a progressively intensive regimen of a careful diet, walking, and finally running, it is well within his ability to one day become the kind of person who can travel 26.21875 miles in less than four hours.

This idea of becoming the kind of person who loves God and his neighbor with her whole heart is central to Willard’s thought. To Willard spiritual transformation is achieved as we cooperate with the power of God within us by directing our bodies and minds to practice certain time-honored spiritual disciplines. “Disciplines are activities that are in our power and that enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort. We cannot transform our ideas and images, or even the information we have or our thought processes, into Christlikeness by direct effort. But we can do things—adopt certain practices—that, indirectly, will increasingly have that effect.” (113)

Christian Spiritual Formation is therefore a matter of recognizing and replacing in ourselves idea systems and practices of evil with the idea systems and practices of the kingdom of God embodied and taught by Jesus—filling our minds with the images, ideas, and information that filled the mind of Jesus, and occupying our bodies with those activities and practices that filled his schedule.

If I occupy my mind and body with the disciplines of mediating upon Christ’s words of love and forgiveness towards me, memorizing his command to love my neighbor (or my enemy), praying for the well-being of my enemies, and perhaps even secretly serving them with no thought of reward (perhaps by secretly tending to their lawn), it is highly likely that the next time I call upon my body to hold my tongue (what a wonderfully embodied term), my body will throw off its embodied sin and obey my will.  I have become the type of person who blesses others in moments of stress where I may have cursed in the past.

Which brings me back to Tom Bartlett’s Chronicle article below. I am not making a spiritual formation case for eating sweets (which some research says may lead to a life of crime.) What I am saying is that our bodies are an integral part of our spiritual formation. Compare some of the findings of Embodied Cognition to Willard’s thought and ponder whether or not such research may very well be onto something important…

…Or at least give you a good excuse not to give up chocolate for Lent.

Next:  What is Spiritual Formation, by Dallas Willard

 

The Sweet Kisses of Embodied Cognition

People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

by  • The Chronicle of Higher Education

Best lollipopsI wandered into a session on embodied cognition at last week’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, and I walked away thinking what I heard can’t possibly be true.

I mean, it just can’t be. Can it?

Research on embodied cognition—the idea, basically, that the body strongly influences the mind in multiple ways we’re not aware of (though not everyone agrees with that definition)—is a fairly new field, and in the last few years it has produced a number of head-scratching results. For instance, there’s the 2009 study that seems to show that people holding heavy clipboards are more likely to disagree with weak arguments than people holding light clipboards. Or the study, also published in 2009, that found that people gripping a warm cup of coffee judged others as having a “warm” personality.

In the session I saw, the presentation, by Michael D. Robinson, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, was on his research suggesting a strong connection between acting sweet and eating sweets. Between cupcakes and kindness.

Some of his research got attention when it was first published, in 2011, but I was struck again by what it would mean if it turned out to be true.

In one experiment, the researchers gave 58 undergraduates either a Hershey’s Kiss or an Altoids Tangerine Sour. Posttreat, those who had eaten a Kiss rated themselves as feeling more agreeable than those who had sucked an Altoid.

That’s not terribly shocking. Maybe chocolate puts people in a slightly better mood. Fine.

What’s harder to wrap my head around is an experiment that linked a fondness for sweet foods with a willingness to help others. First, the 108 participants (undergrads again) filled out a survey in which they rated how much they liked salty, sour, and sweet foods.

They were then asked whether they would be willing to help dispose of sandbags. The question isn’t as random as it sounds: There had been a flood in the area, and millions of sandbags needed to be removed. The way the question was framed, the participants might reasonably have believed that they were committing to help out with the cleanup.

Here’s what Robinson found: People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

And the finding hits on one of the underlying ideas of embodied cognition—that is, that the metaphors we toss around are grounded in more concrete, physiological truths. Warm things make you physically and psychologically warmer. Cold things make you feel more alienated. Sweet things make you sweeter, and liking sweet things means you behave more sweetly.

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See Also: The Feast of Fasting: Why Practicing Lent is a lot like Surfing