Distinguishing Tastes and Smells: Event

Why do some foods taste better than others, and why do certain aromas appeal to us, while others make us hold our noses? Learn the answers to these questions and more at the event, “How Your Brain Distinguishes Taste and Aromas,” next Tuesday, May 6, in Washington, DC. The event, co-hosted by AAAS and the Dana Foundation as part of the Neuroscience and Society series, is free and open to the public, but you must register.

When and where?event_20140409_taste-smell-swirl_original
Tuesday, May 6
5:30 p.m.
AAAS Auditorium
1200 New York Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20005

Past Neuroscience and Society events have covered topics such as sleep and dreaming, traumatic brain injury, and arts and the brain. Stay tuned for our report on this event later next week.

How the Brain Reacts to Taste

Charles Zuker, Ph.D., is fascinated by how sensation turns into perception in the brain. The Chilean-born researcher received his doctorate at MIT, spent more than 20 years conducting research at UC San Diego, and now works as a Professor of Neuroscience and Biochemistry at Columbia University. Last week Zuker gave a presentation, “Common Sense About Taste,” at the Carlyle Hotel organized by Columbia University as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Dana Foundation.

If you take a (small) sip of milk and stick your tongue out in front of a mirror, the pink dots that appear in contrast to the milk on your tongue are mushroom shaped, fungiform papillae—a type of taste bud. One taste bud contains 50 to 100 taste cells. Each cell’s membrane is freckled with receptors that “taste” the surrounding chemical environment. Thus a single
taste bud is equipped to sense sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami—the savory taste that owes its name to the Japanese word for “yummy.”

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Primer on the Senses

We traditionally refer to five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. But it’s not that simple. Our new primer, on the senses, delves into the complex systems that enable us to connect to the world.

It’s a dynamic process. The brain is not simply a receiving station for sensory signals, and what we see, hear, and feel are constantly shaped by emotions, memories, moods, and beliefs. Our sense of the world is a creation of the brain, and the same physical sensation may be experienced quite differently at different times of life, and even from day to day.

Read Part I of the primer now; Part II will post on the Dana Foundation homepage on Monday, August 26.

– Ann L. Whitman

Expanding your palate

    An article
in the Dining section of Tuesday’s New York Times explains in
scientific terms why so many people hate cilantro, some going so far as
to liken the taste to soap or death. Jay Gottfried of Northwestern University
explains to reporter Harold McGee that when a food activates our sense
of taste, our memories also are activated; we look to past experiences
to “create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its
desirability.”

    Smell and taste are linked to emotion and memory
for evolutionary reasons, helping us to avoid eating poisonous items.
So if a food is determined to be undesirable, “the brain highlights the
mismatch and the potential threat to our safety” and we spit it out. As
we continue to be exposed to a particular food, like cilantro, new
experiences are created and our views of the food can change.

    I’m
hesitant to say this, but the article implies that my mom was right.
Growing up, my sister and I were forced to try “no-thank-you portions”
of foods we found gross. Maybe this continued exposure is the reason I
will now eat squash and zucchini without complaint (I never had a
problem with cilantro).

    Still, as a Dana article from 2008
explains, some foods remain repugnant. If you have a particularly
unpleasant gustatory experience, a “taste aversion” mechanism can kick
in and cause you to avoid a food for years. Too bad I don’t have such
an aversion to cupcakes and ice cream.

    –Johanna Goldberg

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