Food, The Brain and Us – Review Conference

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A philosopher, a psychologist, and a historian walk into a building. They’re followed shortly after by two chefs and a perfumer.

No, this isn’t the start of some sort of convoluted joke which references the clichéd stereotypes surrounding each profession. Rather, it’s the sort of eclectic mix which produces questions like:

“Is it the chef that makes flavors or is it the brain?”

Though I might have called the mix eclectic, the talks did mesh well together. From a historical perspective on how sensory perceptions have changed to a discussion on Proust and involuntary memory – it all flowed rather well using the focal point of food.

Courtesy of the Royal Institution

After these talks, we were handed menu cards and taken on a journey through an experimental tasting menu – the highlights of which I’ve detailed below. Each of the activities focused on a different sense – each one a building block of flavor.

Touch: Electrical Taste

Acmella oleracea is a budding plant that, when bitten, causes one to perceive a “buzzing” sensation. It was rather strange to have it occur and stranger still to think that this could be a taste. The main train of thought is that there are properties that have been assigned to other tastes that should rightfully be associated with this “buzzing” taste.

concept of elctrical taste


The preconceptions we have about color are rather ingrained. It’s probably for good reason. Perhaps it is so that events like this can tantalize the guests by handing them wonderful jelly cubes and asking them to guess the flavor. You must also check our study effect of single-cell and biology of food.

Generally, when I put something black in my mouth, I have a set number of possible flavors that I imagine it would be. Rarely is one of those possibilities mango. Nor for the color blue, do I think “you know what, that’s probably going to be strawberry.”

It was incredibly fascinating to see how preconceptions of people have affected the way they eat. In my group, I witnessed one woman regurgitate a half-chewed black mango jelly unto her spoon. Maybe she didn’t like mango. I prefer to think that she wasn’t ready to have her mind blown like that.

food taste


Sarah McCartney is a perfumer who speaks of smells in the same way that composers talk about musical notes. We were handed multiple bottles of volatile compounds and asked to identify them. People gave many different answers and they were all correct.

The general take-home message from this was that actants can be found in multiple foods and that the actants present can change as a food ripens.

(I’ve touched on this only briefly as I think Kevin’s piece on olfactory dominance details this concept far better than I ever could.)

Taste: Miracle Berries and PTC

I’m no stranger to the miraculin protein. Found in miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum), this protein binds to the taste buds and when the pH is lowered (when sour foods are taken), it causes the perception of sour to be changed to that of sweet. We were given half a tablet of compacted miracle berry and offered a choice of sour citrus fruit – the results were what one would expect from this (if you want to try it at home, you can purchase it from Amazon)

PTC, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. Its taste ranges from virtually tasteless to unbearably bitter depending on the genome of the taster. Another example of this can be seen in people’s response to the taste of alcohol. At the event, it seemed that most people had an average response to it.

An interesting side-note is that the response to PTC was, at one point, used as a part of familial genetic testing. In particular, it was a key part of paternity tests – I can see how it could leave a bitter taste in someone’s mouth.

Sound: Can you hear the temperature?

The final room on this tour was set up with a television at one end and a microphone at the other, running two concurrent experiments. Also, study our new post on comparison between traditional and modern macaroni and cheese.

The microphone experiment required you to put a pair of headphones on and eat a crisp -simple. You’d then repeat it with the microphone switched on and feeding back into your headphones. An odd experience to have the sound amplified but I didn’t feel that it altered my perception.

sound of room

The sound of temperature 

If someone came up to you in the street and asked “can you hear temperature?”, you’d probably not take them seriously. You might think that they were a tad insane or that they were running some sort of highly unorthodox synaesthesia awareness campaign. Either way, you would probably fling pocket change at them in the hopes that they’d leave you alone.

Someone asking the very same question in the Royal Institution garners an altogether different response – especially in front of a television. Some members of the audience steadfastly shook their heads whilst others were more reserved in their response. I felt pretty confident in my abilities*.

They played four tracks and asked us to rank them, in relative terms, from hottest to coldest. It was quite interesting to hear that my gut instinct was correct and I remembered the reasoning behind this phenomenon**.

Sound of The Sea

The next sounds played were far more fascinating. Much like Heston Blumenthal’s “Sound of The Sea” dish, these sounds were used to heighten the perception of various tastes. We were tasked with identifying which sounds were which – a task that we completed accurately. The sounds themselves didn’t overtly give away their connections but everyone in the room was able to give the same response, factoring in tempo, resonance, and pitch.

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