Friday, June 3, 2016

SENSE AND MEMORY: A TASTE CAN TAKE YOU BACK



In the early part of the 20th Century, a French fellow named Proust wrote a novel in seven volumes that famously rambled on at length about his memory of the taste of a cookie. The cookie was called a madeleine, and the novel was called A la recherche de temps perdu, or Remembrance of Things Past, as I learned it in school. (I understand it’s now translated as In Search of Lost Time. Given its length they really should have named it In Search of an Editor.)
Proust's famous cookie

But I digress.

This much shorter blog is about my experience of the taste of cherry cider. And, because this is partly a science blog, we want to know the how of it all—the science of smell/taste and memory.

When I was a kid visiting my grandparents in West Virginia in the high summer, you could stop at any number of roadside stands selling fake tomahawks; beginning rock collections; postcards; Coke in small glass bottles out of a standing cooler; fresh, local fruit and vegetables; and hand-pressed cider. If you were lucky and the timing was right, you could get not only apple cider, but cherry cider, made from the same kind of tart cherries you use to make pies.

I never much cared for apple cider, but I loved cherry cider and used to beg my mom or grandmom to buy a jug of it. That almost never happened, though. I suppose it was expensive; it certainly had to be drunk up before it turned, fermenting so that it was fit only for grown-up consumption. And the grown-ups weren’t that fond of it. So it was rare when I got to indulge my love of it. By the time I was old enough to buy my own, farmers had stopped making the real stuff and were substituting cherry-flavored apple cider. It was never the same.

Noble cherry cider. Yum!
Imagine my delight last week when I ordered a glass of the local Noble cider from the tap of my friendly corner bar and grille to find it was cherry cider! Hard cherry cider! Here was the taste of my childhood, stripped of any sugary sweetness and taken down to its essential tart flavor. If I were Mr. Proust, I would write about 500 pages right now about how good it was and how it took me back to my childhood summers in West Virginia.

How does this happen? We can all cite some flavor or smell from our childhoods that can instantly take us back—Crayons or chalk from the classroom, Uncle Ralph’s chocolate pancakes, fresh peaches (a treat for both the nose and the tastebuds). A new study* by scientists at the Sagol Department of Neurobiology at the University of Haifa, in cooperation with the Tokyo’s Riken Institute, show a distinct relationship between the insular cortex (which is responsible for taste memory), and the hippocampus (which places events in space and time). The link ensures there will be a direct correlation between the time and place you experience a taste for the first time and that particular taste.

Other studies have shown the neurochemical basis of such things as taste aversion and the emotional power of certain smells on the brain’s insular cortex and amygdala. Olfactory neurons in the brain rule the sense of smell, and since smell and taste are so intricately intertwined, affect our reactions to taste also.

Of course, back when we were hunting and gathering for our food, our smell and taste memories were crucial to our survival. If we couldn’t remember we’d gathered a particularly nasty-tasting green that made us sick down by a certain river, we probably wouldn’t have lasted too long. But those sweet/tart red fruits on a certain tree in the next meadow over? Oh, yeah, those were awesome!

There’s a reason, too, that we’re told to use all five senses in our writing. We have an emotional connection to the tastes and smells of our experience. And so do our readers.

*”Food memory: Discovery shows how we remember taste experiences,” SCIENCE DAILY blog, September 22, 2014. Source: University of Haifa.


Cheers,
Donna





2 comments:

  1. I love hard ciders too, the dryer the better. And since I also love sour beers, this looks right up my alley! Glad you got to relive a good memory.

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  2. When we were in St. Martin they had sweet little breakfast breads called Madeleines. Every time I see a picture of the island, I can taste them. Yum! Interesting reading about the scientific findings behind the taste/memory phenomenon.

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