Forming Food Memories

What did you eat for dinner last night? How about the night before? Three nights ago?

If you are like most people, you could tell me what you ate last night, and possibly the night before. But after that, things get dicey. “People remember yesterday,” said University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Paul Rozin at a Rubin Museum Brainwave event on Monday. “Something about the last day seems to be special.” But our brains don’t retain mundane details—like what you ate for dinner—from the days before.

Rozin discussed food, eating, and memory with esteemed food writer, editor, and critic Ruth Reichl. Both agreed that what makes a meal memorable is not the food, but the experience.

“Food is supposed to make everybody more interesting, make everybody into their best selves,” said Reichl. “This is the moment when you breathe and take time to listen to what people are saying.”

Having an especially good meal with excellent company can prompt long-term memories to form, but, said Rozin, “Our memories are not the same as the things [we experience]. Memory distorts.”

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has outlined three rules for memory, which Rozin explained. We remember peak experiences, and we better remember the end of an event. We also experience duration neglect—we don’t recall how long things went on, just that they occurred.

Reichl may remember peak food experiences better than most people. “The power of a food memory can be so potent I can literally re-taste things in my mind as I’m describing them.” At the same time, “Sometimes the memory is better than the food itself,” Reichl said. “Sometimes I’m convinced I’ve made entire things up [when writing about food]—it’s a frightening feeling.”

Our memories can play tricks on us in other ways. Rozin has studied duration neglect in the context of eating, giving participants four- or five-course meals with the size of their favorite course doubled. Participants’ enjoyment ratings were not impacted by how much they ate during a course or how long the course lasted. “You don’t have to pig out” to enjoy a dish, said Rozin.

When it came time for the eating portion of the event, Rozin explained that people are terrible at identifying foods and smells. “People can’t tell one fish or one wine from another with their eyes closed,” he said. Still, an audience member could name nearly all the ingredients in a duck dish eaten before being identified—maybe because her eyes were open.

Rozin also said that although scents can elicit powerful emotional responses, we can only easily recognize a few smells, like coffee and chocolate. “A smell can evoke a memory even if we can’t identify it,” he said. Odors enter the brain in a different way from other sensory input. Instead of coming through the thalamus, which plays a role in consciousness and alertness, olfactory neurons pass through areas of the brain related to emotion. In addition, when a researcher attaches a label to an odor—calling it either cheese or cat poop, for example—it can change someone’s interpretation of it, even though the odor itself stayed the same.

Our acceptance of cheese points to our willingness to take limited risks as eaters. Most cultures, said Rozin, value a decayed food item, like aged cheese or fermented fish sauce. “We get some pleasure out of making food unacceptable but approved,” said Rozin. “We are crazy complicated creatures. No other animal does this.”

And our rules are very cultural—why else would horse and viscera and insects be delicacies in some places but shunned in others? Our unwillingness to try such foods might make us miss out on discovering new favorites and forming new memories.

“I don’t have much of a disgust mechanism. I’ll try anything once,” said Reichl. “Silkworm larva is especially delicious.”

–Johanna Goldberg

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