Sci + Society,

#202: What is Neurogastronomy?

October 13, 2017

Food is understood to motivate behavior.

But it’s not just hunger that does it — not just the need for physical sustenance.  People who get their nutritional needs met with a bland, uninspiring diet will still have their thoughts consumed by fantasies of flavor – dreamt-of meals of smorgasbords of exotic cuisine.  Few “lost in the wilderness” stories or prison sagas don’t feature food becoming a borderline obsession, even among well-fed people.

Neurogastronomy is the study of flavor perception — a new, interdisciplinary field at the conjunction of psychology, neuroscience and food science.  Its proponents’ interests go broader still, into areas of environmental sustainability and population-level health systems.

Dr. Tim McClintock, Ph.D. and Dan (Dong) Han, Psy.D. are colleagues at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, where McClintock is a Professor of Physiology and Han an Associate Professor of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.  They are each at the forefront of the ripening movement to apply (and extend) our understanding of how smell, taste, and texture combine to create flavor.

The possibilities presented by being able to adjust the dials on one of our most universal drives can’t be overstated.  Flavor is a motivator for everyone — and almost all the time.  Sleep motivates, but only when we’re tired.  Sex motivates, but more in some times of life than others.  But chocolate always tastes good. 

“What if we could make kale or brussels sprouts induce the same pleasure as chocolate?”

Thinking Differently About Flavor.

Taria Camerino is a gustatory synesthete — meaning that her perceptual senses are unusually wired compared to your standard-issue human brain.  She says that while she can’t remember visual images, flavor is the sense by which she interfaces with the world.  Luckily (perhaps inevitably), she is a highly sought-after chef.  Her work has included interpreting music into flavor — sort of a sensory translation exhibit.

In Episode #202, she explains her technique for designing recipes that include the least traditional of ingredients.  (Example: Granite.)  And along the way, we discuss the multi-dimensional topic of flavor with experts working across the neurogastronomic spectrum:

  • Can the bad taste good?
  • Can the good taste better?
  • Are humans really the olfactory underdogs we’re widely believed to be?
  • Can the tasteless feel their flavor restored?
Show Notes
  • 00:00:34

    Episode introduction: What is Neurogastronomy?

  • 00:01:26

    This Week In Neuroscience: Mindful Kids.

  • 00:04:33

    5-Star review shoutouts.

  • 00:05:33

    SDS news and updates.

  • 00:07:22

    Guest introductions: Dr. Tim McClintock, Ph.D., Dan (Dong) Han, Psy.D., and Taria Camerino.

  • 00:09:19

    Interview begins: The concept of neurogastronomy.

  • 00:10:42

    Taria Camerino talks about her synesthesia and why she chose to be a chef.

  • 00:13:05

    The human sense of smell.

  • 00:14:43

    Olfaction in comparison to vision and hearing.

  • 00:17:11

    The importance of smell.

  • 00:18:05

    Is losing your sense of smell an all-or-nothing process?

  • 00:20:18

    Flavor profiling.

  • 00:22:40

    Learned dissociations.

  • 00:23:27

    Methodology of mouse studies.

  • 00:24:07

    What advances can we expect in this field down the road?

  • 00:25:27

    Current and future applications of neurogastronomy.

  • 00:28:56

    The proper use of flavor in healthful eating; transferring flavor preferences to things that are healthy.

  • 00:29:47

    Flavor as an emergent property and as an integration of multiple senses.

  • 00:31:55

    Smell and the limbic system: emotional responses to flavors and smells.

  • 00:32:31

    Neurophysiology of flavor mechanisms.

  • 00:33:44

    Popular misconceptions about flavor and olfaction.

  • 00:35:38

    The tactility of food.

  • 00:37:40

    Environmental cues.

  • 00:39:43

    Neuromodulation and short-term ways of tweaking our taste or flavor systems.

  • 00:40:57

    Using flavors to manipulate experiences.

  • 00:42:48

    Taria Camerino's thoughts on the color (and possible taste) of Facebook.

  • 00:44:11

    Gustatory synesthetes.

  • 00:44:50

    Olfaction and memory.

  • 00:46:15

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:47:38

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: How the caffeine molecule affects our overall sense of taste.

  • 00:50:22

    Episode wrap-up.

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