As anyone who has ever brought the subject of bodily fluids up during dinner will know, the link between stories, emotions, and taste is pretty obvious. Listening to someone bang on about the amazing tacos they made last night is likely to make you hungry, while your ingrown toenail story does the opposite. We also mix feelings with flavours in our everyday conversation: how many times have you been left with a "bitter taste in your mouth" or captioned an Insta pic with "Life is sweet"?
However, the interaction between senses and storytelling is more subtle than this. Not only can stories make us hungry or not-hungry, they can also affect the actual flavours we experience.
At the University of West of England, a collaboration between foodies and neuroscientists is setting out to demonstrate this in a series of experiments mapping the links between flavour perception and words. Researchers will wire participants to EEG brain-scanners, before tracking what happens to their responses as they eat chocolate and listen to stories.
James Wheale is the founder of immersive dining company, Understory, and one of the project leaders. "I'm keen to see how emotions can influence flavours," he says. "Food can be used like the score of a film, to add an emotional narrative."
The project will work towards the development of a chocolate bar that is perfectly tailored to enhance a particular story.
"It will be inspired by the classic story opening, It was a dark and stormy night," Wheale says. "By combining popping candy, mint, and a few other ingredients, I hope to elicit a sensory experience that compliments the story. The mint cools the mouth, emulating the chill of the night, the popping candy is reminiscent of the thunder claps and so on."
We tend to think of our primary senses as being objective. A sight is a sight. A taste is a taste. However, an increasing body of research suggests that this isn't the case. Emotions are inextricably entangled in our physical sensations. Perhaps flavour perception most of all.
"The genomes of mammals are thought to contain 30,000 genes of which 3 percent—that's about 1000 genes—are olfactory receptors, the largest group in the genome," Wheale says. "So a huge portion of who we are is centred around being able to experience taste and smell."
When you taste something, not much actually happens in your mouth. The jury's still out as to how many tastes your tongue can pick up on but the five basic ones are thought to be sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. The rest of the fucking-hell-that-mac-and-cheese-is-delicious magic happens in your nose, where receptors can "read" the thousands of different molecules which are pushed up through your nose as you eat.
Receptors in your nose have a direct pathway to the brain's piriform cortex and the amygdala, which is associated with emotion, long-term and episodic memory. The complexity of the odour-receptors is thought to lie behind the associations that get made between food and thoughts. While the taste "sour" is too generalised to become linked to a particular memory or emotion, the specific flavour of spaghetti hoops—created via both your tastebuds and the receptors in your nose—is niche enough to trigger memories of messy, after-school meals with your siblings.
Foods can elicit emotions and trigger memories and, on the flip side, emotions can change the way you experience taste. There's some suggestion that being hyper-responsive to emotions could make you more sensitive to certain tastes.
The loop between emotion and flavour perception seems to work both ways. Foods can elicit emotions and trigger memories and, on the flip side, emotions can change the way you experience taste. The level at which this happens seems to vary for different people and there's some suggestion that being hyper-responsive to emotions in general could make you more sensitive to certain tastes.
The fact that stories affect the food we want to eat has, of course, been put to use by adversities. While Pepsi outperforms Cola in blind taste tests, as soon as people can see the branding, they prefer Cola. This isn't down to people pretending to prefer the better marketed product, but to their flavour perception being genuinely altered by the "story" they've been told about Coke.
Meanwhile, wine snobs got a glass of Chardonnay in the face two years ago, when a series of experiments suggested that even "experts" can't tell the difference between fine wine and cornershop plonk. It seems we're gluttons for a food story.
The ability of thoughts and emotions to change the way we experience food has been jumped on by chefs. Heston Blumenthal's Sound of the Sea at the Fat Duck is the most famous of these experiments, pairing seafood with an audio track of ocean sounds to bring out the salt and brine flavours.
There's been a fair bit of research into how music and sound can alter the way food tastes, a la Heston, but Wheale's focus on storytelling will have different implications. Yes, there's scope for an amazing dining experience with murder mysteries played out in your mouth ("You could have Colonel Mustard represented by actual mustard, so you'd know he'd been in that crime scene because you can taste it," Wheale says) but there could be serious applications of the findings too.
"Dementia patients have been able to access memories by being played music from their past," Wheale says. "The same may be possible with food. When you're forming your first long-term memories, you have many more taste buds than when you're older. Food creates powerful memories, so cooking familiar food for relatives with dementia might be a way of reaching through the fog."
Wheale also wonders if storytelling could be utilised to manipulate taste towards more ethical food choices."In an industrialised food chain, the only way you know about the food you eat is from the packaging," Wheale says. "But food packaging is changing in the EU; it's no longer really required to state that animal have been fed GM, even though that enters our food system. Stories are the gatekeepers to consumer choices. If a compelling story arrives that demonstrates how unethical the food industry can be, consumers could demand better transparency."
Wheale says that, eventually, he'd like to find out if telling someone a compelling story about how dodgy their burger is actually affects their experience of its flavour. Think nothing could put you off? You haven't heard my bodily fluid stories.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in March, 2015.