Chocolate on the brain

I wouldn’t normally associate chocolate with the self-denying Buddhist culture of the Himalayas. But last night at the Rubin Museum, the center for Himalayan art in New York City, the pleasure of chocolate reigned.

As famed pastry chef Jacques Torres said, “I’m not going to give up chocolate. I never will reach enlightenment.”

The Compass of Pleasure, the penultimate event in the Rubin’s fourth-annual Brainwave series, paired Torres with David Linden, professor of neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of a new book sharing the event’s title.

Torres, a native of France, began the evening by describing his introduction to Hershey bars. He found the flavor surprising, and not in a good way—it tasted like something was wrong with the chocolate. “If you grow up with it, you will love it,” he said. But it was not like the chocolate he ate growing up in Europe.

This cultural difference speaks to the biology of food preferences. As Linden explained, studies of identical twins raised separately find that even with divergent backgrounds, the twins’ senses of humor and the personalities of their significant others tend to be similar. Food preferences, however, vary widely—there is little genetic basis for what we like to eat. Experience—especially our earliest experiences—determines our food preferences.

Still, people are evolutionarily predisposed to like fatty, salty, and sweet foods. “Culture moves fast, and evolution moves slowly,” said Linden. “Our brain circuits and bodies are not well adapted to unlimited caloric availability…We evolved for a diet that no longer exists,” one that rarely included meats, fats, sweets, and oils. It was evolutionarily advantageous to eat these items at any opportunity, as food might not be available later.

So why is chocolate such a draw for so many people? Chocolate, sex, drugs, gambling, and a host of other substances and activities can activate the pleasure circuit of the brain, in the medial forebrain region, and cause a surge of the pleasure-associated neurotransmitter dopamine. This circuit and addictive substances and behaviors are strongly connected—in fact, there is a perfect correlation between substances that activate the circuit and substances of abuse.

But acts of indulgence are not the only things that can activate the pleasure pathway. Exercise, learning, giving to charity, and even fasting and abstinence can stimulate the pleasure circuit in humans. “Utterly arbitrary experiences can bring pleasure,” said Linden. Pleasurable activities are those we want to repeat, and can vary greatly from person to person. No matter what we enjoy, said Linden, “pleasure is the central motivator of our behavior.”

Back to chocolate: Torres had the audience taste two samples of his creations, one a more traditional piece of chocolate from a single source in Africa, the other a piece with a more complex flavor made from Dominican cacao. The second piece was almost spicy, with a citrus-like flavor. Torres said that this chocolate is less widely liked, as people have less exposure to the flavor.

Perhaps, but I’d take that second piece of chocolate over a Hershey bar any day.

– Johanna Goldberg

2 responses

  1. The road to enlightenment can be found in pleasurable experiences, such as eating chocolate. By concentrating on the experience itself and losing your ego-centered self in the process, one comes close to nirvana. With enough concentration on experience, enlightenment is not far behind.

  2. Ahhh chocolate. The food for the heart. When we feel depressed, we will feel better after we ate a bar of chocolate. Chocolates can turn enemies to friends, rivals to allies. Not only that, chocolate is a quick energy booster. Chocolate: Good for the heart, but not for the teeth, hahaha. But hey, it’s good for the brain. Just brush your teeth after eating.

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