I love these experiments, if only because everyone assumes that the basic finding doesn't apply to them. It's only these other simpletons who can't tell the difference between red and white wine, or cheap plonk and fancy Bordeaux, or strawberry and chocolate yogurt:
In one recent test, psychologists asked 32 volunteers to sample strawberry yogurt. To make sure the testers made their judgments purely on the basis of taste, the researchers said, they needed to turn out the lights. Then they gave their subjects chocolate yogurt. Nineteen of the 32 praised the strawberry flavor. One said that strawberry was her favorite flavor and she planned to switch to this new brand.
Impressions are always incomplete, and require a dash of subjectivity to render them whole. Whenever we bind or parse our sensations what we are really doing is making a judgment about what we think we are sensing. This unconscious act of interpretation is largely driven by contextual cues. If we encounter a sensation in an unusual situation--like the smell of demi-glace in a McDonald's--the brain secretly begins altering its sensory verdict. Our ambiguous inputs are bound together into a different sensation. The fancy scent of veal stock becomes a quarter pounder.
Our sense of smell is particularly vulnerable to this sort of outside influence. Since many different odors differ only in their molecular details--and we long ago traded away nasal acuity for better color vision--our brain is often forced to decipher smells based upon non-sensory information. Parmesan cheese and vomit, for example, are both full of butyric acid, which has a pungent top note and a sweetish linger. As a result, blindfolded subjects in experiments will often confuse the two stimuli. In real life, however, such sensory mistakes are extremely rare. Common sense overrules our actual senses.
This is a pretty common phenomenon in real life, as far as i know.
Anybody who buys multipacks of flavoured/scented things, and then uses up an "undesired" flavour by telling themselves it is actually a different flavour has seen the tip of the iceberg. And of course, small children who "hate cherry" but "love grape" can easily be tricked if they are told they are eating "red grape" and not "red cherry".
(Sorry about all the quotes. They annoy me too; but here i'm trying to make a specific point about how the brain perceives artificiality.)
That's funny - I went straight to NYT to Palin's article, and then from there to this article. The Times is right up your alley today.
This might sound bizarre... but lightly flavored chocolate and fake strawberry flavor? They're not ALL that different. I know. I'm weird. But I've had that thought even before reading this article. Of course it proves the point either way -- our judgment of flavor is swayed by context.
Someone recently commented to me that basil smells like licorice. I love basil. I detest licorice. Now? Every time I chop basil, I grimace and have to convince myself, again, that I will enjoy the basil flavor.
Perhaps the ability to form irrational associations with flavor is left over from the evolution of taste-aversion? Taste might be particularly sensitive to context for this reason.
I had a strange experience with tomatoes. The first time I ate a tomato, I was a young child and almost couldn't keep it down. The tomato was *very* unpleasant to me. For many, many years, I could not stand fresh tomatoes, even though I enjoyed a variety of strongly flavored foods and loved every other kind of vegetable. About 4 years ago, I decided "enough with this nonsense" and forced myself to taste tomatoes at every available opportunity. Last month? Success. I like them now. I can tell you that the flavor of the tomato is exactly the same -- but I no longer recall that first unpleasant taste from my childhood. I can't believe that it took me four years to overcome one unpleasant flavor association.
Who wants to admit that things people eat may have a scent and taste affinity with something nasty. The parmigiano-vomit pairing is hardly alone. And if we've got all that lovely GABA in our brains, there's that butyric component again. Does this explain zombie movies?
Our modern US culture has been stuffing itself with fake flavorings for decades, and with color-altered and perfumed edibles. Rancid meats were perfumed in the middle ages, so maybe we haven't changed much.
Yesterday's movie excursion provided a grossly funny example of sensory trickery. In Tropic Thunder, one of the clueless actors nibbles on bits from his late director's head calmly explaining that it's a movie prop.
On a much tastier note, I hope Rachael can still enjoy a nice tomato and basil dish. Although she may want to be wary of tarragon.
My sister used to fool her young son by cutting tofu into mushroom shapes. On the other hand, my Keen sandals are scented with vanilla. I'm fairly sure they are safe from becoming a snack.
Bon appetit, just keep the lights on, and as many senses as possible in alert mode.
Thanks for the note on butyric acid. I think I begin to understand how certain failed jelly beans fell so far from the mark.
Strawberry and sweet chocolate are surprisingly similar flavours and scents, so this does not surprise me. If you add amount of anything acidic to sweet chocolate it is quite easy to convince somebody (or yourself) that it has strawberry in it.
I found this out when I was a kid. I had a milkshake that was chocolate & strawberry mixed together. The next time I had a chocolate milkshake I was CONVINCED it was a mixed one. So I started experimenting with tasting & smelling chocolate & strawberry with my eyes closed, and discovered that, absent visual input, they are very close in flavour & scent.
about butyric acid: classified by smell, there are four kinds of cheese -- shit, vomit, garbage, and blue. The mild vomit cheeses are the most common in North America. Spanish and Italian cheeses represent the stronger end of the vomit spectrum. Blue cheeses are usually shit cheese until exposed to air, then they develop the spores that give them their characteristic blue smell. Apart from blue cheese, shit cheese is not very common in North America. The best shit cheeses are the raw mountain milk cheeses from Switzerland, and they are generally illegal in North America (because they are unpasteurized). A few milder pasteurized variants (tete de moine, cave-aged-gruyere) have recently made some inroads in North America, but generally North Americans can't deal with their pungency. The garbage cheeses are the surface ripened cheeses, the best of which come from France. The premium garbage cheeses are the most pungent of all, capable of making your entire house smell like rotting turnips from inside their wooden box, a double wrapping of plastic bag, and the closed cheese container of your refrigerator.
I prefer the shit cheeses, though since I currently live in Canada selection is limited. I blue cheese from a freshly cut wheel, when it still tastes primarily like a shit cheese. I've been getting into strong garbage cheeses recently because they are more readily available in Canada than good shit cheese. The king of vomit cheeses of course is parmigiano reggiano, but it has become so common that it is boring.
A good crossover cheese are the very old amsterdams, which are a vomit cheese with strong shit characteristics.