Sunday, March 07, 2004

An Example of a Mental Bias Towards the Physical

A while back, I gave a glowing review of Harold McGee's The Curious Cook. This post is about a single sentence from that book, which I'm using to illustrate a facet of the way our minds seem to work. This post doesn't provide a complete argument - at the moment I'm just trying to collect examples in order to build a fuller case, one that I'm hoping to present in the future. And you might find its conclusion rather lightweight - but after all, it's only a single, small example...

In the book's article on making mayonnaise, he explains how a microwave can be used to kill the salmonella that can sometimes be found in eggs. A microwave is suitable for the task because it can kill the bacteria without destroying the "rawness" of the egg yolk, which is important for making mayonnaise. It can do so because it can cook yolks at precise "temperatures" for a precise duration of time.

"As for the cooking itself, after years of owning a microwave oven, I finally found a task that it alone can accomplish well. On the stovetop, it's very difficult to ..." (pg 99)

It's easy to nod along with what he's saying, and I think it gives us a glimpse of something interesting about the way our minds work to see why he's not really right. When you think about it, a task that microwaves alone can accomplish is the task of heating something up quickly. That's not to say the results are always fantastic, but if it's speed you're after, a microwave is your best bet.

That microwaves can heat things up quickly is a rather obvious fact, and yet you may have noticed that its doesn't come obviously to mind when you read the quoted sentence. Why is that? I think the reason is that our minds have a bias towards thinking in terms of physical entities over more abstract properties such as the duration of something. "Cooking something fast" is definitely valid as a task a microwave can alone do well, but it's far less obvious a task than something physical such as "frying something", "baking a cake" or "making rice".

There's an objection to my argument that you may have found yourself thinking. That is, that when he said "I finally found a task that it alone can accomplish well" he was only talking about physical tasks such as "frying something", "baking a cake" or "making rice". I can't say this wasn't the case, but even if it was, I don't think it really says anything against the point I'm making.

If he intended the sentence to refer only to physical tasks, then perhaps it's illustrative that he didn't feel the need to qualify himself, despite the raher obvious thing microwaves do well (cooking things quickly), even if you don't consider that a task. And regardless of how he intended it, it's still illustrative if people still read that sentence without realising the possibility of a task being "cooking quickly".

No comments:

Post a Comment