Cognitive Daily

There’s been a great deal of research on appetite and satiation, both on animals and humans. For humans, of course, the motivation is often focused on how we can lose weight. Almost everyone believes they would look better if they could just lose a few pounds. Most of the research has focused on the taste of food and the physical sensation of fullness, and the results—as you might have suspected—have been inconclusive.

There is some evidence that if you leave the remnants of a meal around (used candy wrappers, for example), then people will eat less than if the evidence of the food is discarded immediately. A study on a single amnesic patient (“H.M.”) mentions that he ate a second full dinner only one minute after finishing the first one.

Inspired by this evidence, a team of researchers led by Paul Rozin suspected that perhaps memory is the key (Paul Rozin and Sara Dow, University of Pennsylvania; Morris Moscovitch, University of Toronto; and Suparna Rajaram, SUNY-Stony Brook, “What Causes Humans to Begin and End a Meal? A Role for Memory for What Has Been Eaten, As Evidenced by a Study of Multiple Meal Eating in Amnesic Patients,” Psychological Science, 1998).

The experiment they devised to explore the role of memory was simple. They found two severely amnesic patients who were otherwise normal. “R.H.” was an intelligent man who managed to live alone with his condition for 20 years. Yet without reminders, he could not remember any new information for more than about a minute. After over 12 hours with the experimenters, he was unable to recognize them. “B.R.” was a man of average intelligence who was hospitalized by his amnesia after it occurred in 1992. Even after spending a year in the hospital, he was completely unfamiliar with its environment, and like R.H., could not remember the experimenters after working with them for many hours.

The experimenters began the session as if they were merely interviewing the patient. Then, without any fanfare, they presented a meal that they knew the patient liked and said “here’s lunch.” B.R. ate the entire meal and R.H. consumed part of his. After the meal, patients were asked to rate their hunger level on a scale of 1 (extremely full) to 9 (extremely hungry). Ten minutes later, each patient was offered another meal, and each patient proceeded to eat exactly as before. B.R. finally rejected his third meal, but R.H. consumed that as well. There were no differences in R.H.’s hunger ratings for the duration of the experiment, which was repeated on three separate occasions. While B.R., a small man weighing only 120 pounds, did report becoming slightly more full, he did not reject the second meal, and on two occasions he began his third meal before being stopped by the experimenter.

For comparison, the experiment was repeated with two people who were not amnesic. Not surprisingly, both participants reported being completely full after one meal, and rejected offers for a second meal.

The obvious conclusion is that memory of what we’ve eaten actually accounts for a significant portion of our hunger. Rather than being solely a physical sensation, being “full” is largely a matter of recalling that we’ve eaten a meal appropriate for the occasion. Rozin et al. point out that most people are very reluctant to eat dinner foods like spaghetti or lamb chops for breakfast. The reason we feel full after meals may be similar: it’s what we expect to happen.

One potential objection to the study’s conclusion is that the same condition that led to the three patients’ amnesia may have also impaired their ability to detect fullness. Rozin and his colleagues reason that this is highly unlikely, because each patient had a different condition, each of which affected slightly different areas of the brain. The only brain area which had suffered damage in all patients was the amygdala, which has been shown in animals not to be related to hunger/satiety.

If hunger and satiety are predominantly social phenomena, then this explains why some of the tricks dieters use are sometimes successful. For example, a common piece of dieting advice is to use small plates to “fool” yourself into believing you’ve eaten a lot. Given the results of Rozin et al.’s study, it’s easy to see why this strategy could work.


  1. #1 Si
    June 17, 2005

    You mean, SMALL plates (make meals seem bigger).

    Interesting, but one doubts that the amygdala, seat of human emotions, has no causal connection at all to satiety. Perhaps a damaged amgdala = inability to receive pleasure reward of food?

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    June 17, 2005

    Oops! Yes, I fixed it to read “small.” Thanks!

  3. #3 Greta Munger
    June 17, 2005

    Maybe the amygdala is involved–are you thinking that when an individual can’t feel the pleasure, they won’t have registered the food somehow? I’ve only seen work showing that the hypothalamus is involved in hunger and satiety, and it seems like satiety is the main point of Rozin et al.’s work.

  4. #4 Si
    June 17, 2005

    Yes, I’m suggesting satiety is a pleasure response involving the amygdala, which, as I understand it (poorly, as a layman), sends messages to the hypothalamus.

  5. #5 Sunil Bajpai
    June 19, 2005

    Pardon me, Dave, if I am completely ignorant, but isn’t amygdala closely related to sense of smell, and which turn is intimately connected with hunger?

    An interesting article in the Reader’s Digest this month reports that you stop eating a meal because your sense of smell and taste is satisfied, even if you don’t feel full.

    Didn’t want to write a very long comment, so I’ve written about it at:

    Is that acceptable behaviour in blog community? Being a newbie, I shall be grateful for pointers about what’s in and what’s not. (Still figuring out about trackback and stuff. Maybe that is what I should have used. But how?)



  6. #6 Dave Munger
    June 20, 2005

    I’m not great with brain region stuff, but I generally think of the amygdala as the center of emotion, especially fear. A quick search online finds this summary of a study which indicates that taste is activated in a number of different brain regions, and the amygdala isn’t mentioned. I should point out that the amnesics in the study did indicate that they taste and enjoy food.

    It’s fine to link to your blog posts from the comments here. Some blogs disallow links, but we don’t. However, if you include several links in your comment, it will be held for moderation (this is a way to prevent spam). As for trackback, it depends on your blogging software. Some software does it automatically, and others require you to enter a trackback URL.

  7. #7 Brian Borak
    June 21, 2005

    Great site Drs. Munger!

    This is really interesting. So, if I may speculate for a moment, could somehow mentally preparing /training oneself before or during a “normal” sized meal (i.e. taking time to “enjoy” your meal or explore the flavors) allow one to better control a hunger sensation and therefore overeating because one would have a better memory of the experience?

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    June 22, 2005


    That certainly seems reasonable to me. And even if it doesn’t prevent overeating, it sounds like it would improve the eating experience!

  9. […] for rats to figure out what to do about it. This study offers additional support for the study we discussed earlier about how amnesia patients don’t realize they are full. Clearly building up an a […]

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  11. #11 Sara Dow
    December 13, 2007

    I am amazed to see our article mentioned so many years later!

    The sad truth is that R.H. died of lung cancer, possibly for the same reason. He was always lighting another cigarette.

    Good luck in your work.

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