Eating, Drinking and Imagining

Aaron Meskin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Leeds. His research interests include experimental aesthetics, the philosophy of food, and the philosophical issues raised by various underexplored art forms and genres.

Aaron Meskin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Leeds. His research interests include experimental aesthetics, the philosophy of food, and the philosophical issues raised by various underexplored art forms and genres.

A post by Aaron Meskin.

A fabulous new cocktail bar opened near my house recently which serves “narrative” cocktails: drinks designed to produce very specific experiences rooted in the story or setting which inspired them. My favorite is 109 Miles to Filey, a drink comprised of seaweed distilled gin, wildflower eau de vie, Islay seafoam, and edible “pebbles”, which is crafted to provide an experience reminiscent of walking on the North Yorkshire coast. Creative, experiential and, I think, centrally involving the imagination, the cocktails at Below Stairs have got me thinking lately about the role of the imagination in eating and drinking.

It is not obvious that the propositional imagination—imagining that such and such is the case—plays a significant role in ordinary eating and drinking. Philosophers of art often appeal to that species of imagination to make sense of our belief-like engagement with fictive content. We don’t believe the contents of fiction, but we respond to that content (inferentially, affectively) much as we would if we believed it. But most food lacks fictive content, inference doesn’t appear to play a significant role in our experience of eating, and the emotional responses we have to food appear to be directed at real, not fictive, objects.[1] It might seem, then, that there is no need to appeal to the propositional imagination in the context of food consumption.

What about mental imagery, specifically gustatory and, more broadly, flavor imagery? A classic account of mental imagery characterizes it as follows:

Visual mental imagery is “seeing” in the absence of the appropriate immediate sensory input, auditory mental imagery is “hearing” in the absence of the immediate sensory input, and so on. (Kosslyn et al. 1995: 1335)

Gustatory imagery, then, would be “tasting” in the absence of the appropriate immediate sensory input. This is roughly how Hollingworth and Poffenberger characterize “images of taste” and the “gustatory imagination” in their 1917 classic, The Sense of Taste; they are tastes (i.e., gustatory experiences) “without the actual presence of their accustomed stimuli” (144).

A complication: Flavor is multisensory—at a very minimum it involves a “combination of the olfactory, gustatory and trigeminal sensations perceived during tasting” (ISO 5492, 1992, 2008).[2] So flavor imagery is surely multisensory as well.

One might be skeptical of the suggestion that flavor imagery plays a significant role in eating. After all, the flavor experiences we have when we eat are typically produced by the actual presence of appropriate sensory input. So there seems to be no role for flavor imagery to play here.

But what about the tasting notes and flavor descriptors associated with beer, coffee, wine and other drinks? Let’s focus on coffee. Square Mile’s Yandaro is described as “apricot/papaya/honeysuckle.”[3] La Cabra’s Pinheirnho is characterized as having a “cacao and hazelnut flavored body finished by date and prune sweetness.”[4] How do these descriptors work? One possibility is that they function according to an attention model: tasting notes influence flavor experience via directing the attention of tasters to flavors that they might otherwise have failed to detect. I’m sure that this is how things work in many cases. But there are reasons to think that some tasting notes work differently. I’m thinking here of Adrienne Lehrer’s (2009) work on wine talk which shows how difficult it is to use it to communicate about wine, as well as the pilot study on coffee talk which I recently ran with Shen-yi Liao (Meskin and Liao forthcoming).

I hypothesize that tasting notes often work via cognitive penetration; that is, they influence perceptual experience via cognitive processes which are independent of attentional effects.[5] More specifically, I suspect that tasting notes frequently function in accordance with Fiona Macpherson’s (2012) model of indirect cognitive penetration. Roughly speaking, reading or hearing the tasting notes causes cognitive states which bring about non-perceptual states (e.g., flavor imagery) with distinctive phenomenal character. The phenomenal character of that flavor imagery affects the phenomenal character of one’s perceptual experience of the item of food or drink. In other words, reading the notes about the Square Mile coffee generates apricot and papaya flavor imagery which combines with the perceptual experience of the Yandaro to produce a different and richer overall flavor experience than one would have had if one had not read the notes. Or so I suspect. In fact, this may happen in more everyday cases; for example, a breakfast cereal described as “honey and nut” may taste nuttier because of the flavor imagery generated by that description.

If I am right, flavor imagery often plays a role in our experience of food—by interacting with, and enriching, our perceptual experience of it. What about other forms of imagination?

Nicola Humble’s wonderful Culinary Pleasures: Cook Books and The Transformation of British Food (2005) includes a fascinating discussion of the mock foods of the First and Second World Wars. According to Humble, the mock food of the Second World War (e.g., Mock Fish made of ground rice, cut in the shape of fish fillets, and flavored with anchovy essence) aimed primarily at imitating the visual appearance of the imitated food, while the mock food of World War 1 (e.g., Poor Man’s Goose made with liver, sage and onion) aimed more at reproducing flavor (ibid.: 34). Perhaps the latter food was designed to satisfy the desire for some scarce food item by providing something with a similar flavor profile. That cannot be how Mock Fish and the other mock foods of World War 2 worked. I suspect they were designed to satisfy the desire to eat some scarce item by providing the imaginative experience of eating that item.  So for example, one might desire chops for dinner but be unable to get them because of rationing. But Mock Chops, made of potato, soy flour and onions, might direct one to imagine consuming real chops and, in so doing, decrease the desire for them.

In fact, research by Morewedge, Huh and Vosgerau (2015) suggests that imagined consumption of a food, just like real consumption, reduces desire for that food through a process of habituation. If this is right then some mock foods may be best understood as artifacts which are designed to satisfy, or at least reduce, desires by directing eaters to actively imagine eating the foods they “mock”. It is even plausible that they meet Kendall Walton’s conditions for counting as fictions or representations: they are plausibly objects “whose function is to serve as props in games of make-believe” (Walton 1990: 72). If so, we have unearthed an intriguing connection between certain foods and fiction after all.

I haven’t explained how the cocktail I mentioned at the beginning, 109 Miles to Filey, engages the imagination. It surely doesn’t work by directing drinkers to imagine eating pebbles! Something else is going on here—perhaps it prompts the drinker to imagine being by the Yorkshire seaside and to admire, among other things, the way in which the flavor experience of the drink “matches” that imagined experience. There may also be some complex cognitive penetration going on—perhaps visual imagery generated by the accompanying text interacts with perceptual experience of the drink to enrich the overall flavor experience. But this is a complex case and, like a work of art, requires subtle interpretation. If my hypotheses above are right, the imagination is involved in a range of more mundane eating and drinking experiences.

[1] I’ll say a tiny bit more about food as fiction later in the post.

[2] In fact, it is plausible that flavour involves more. See Spence (2015).



[5] Some other routes of influence may need to be excluded in order to characterize cognitive penetration correctly. See Macpherson (2012) for discussion.


Hollingworth, Harry L. and Albert T. Poffenberger (1917). The Sense of Taste. Moffat, Yard and Company.

Humble, Nicola (2005). Culinary Pleasures: Cookbooks and the Transformation of British Food. Faber and Faber.

Kosslyn, Stephen M., Marlene Behrmann, and Marc Jeannerod (1995). “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Mental Imagery.” Neuropsychologia 33(11): 1335-1344.

Lehrer, Adrienne (2009). Wine and Conversation, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press.

Macpherson, Fiona (2012). “Cognitive penetration of colour experience: rethinking the issue in light of an indirect mechanism.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84(1): 24-62.

Meskin, Aaron and Liao, Shen-yi (forthcoming). “Experimental Philosophical Aesthetics as Public Philosophy.” In Sébastien Réhault & Florian Cova (eds.), Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Aesthetics. Bloomsbury.

Morewedge Carey K, Young Eun Huh, and Joachim Vosgerau (2010). “Thought for food: imagined consumption reduces actual consumption.” Science 330: 1530-3.

Spence, Charles (2015). “Multisensory Flavour Perception.” Cell 161(1): 24-35.

Walton, Kendall (1990). Mimesis as Make-Believe. Harvard University Press.