Gustatory Memory: Can You Taste a Memory?

Have you ever taken a bite of something and realized instantly that whatever you put into your mouth just wasn’t for you? Maybe it was the texture or the smell. Or perhaps it was a salty bitterness that rubbed your taste buds (also called gustatory receptor cells) the wrong way. Whatever the offensive factor, your brain took note, marking the specific time and place and filing the memory away for later use.

Some scientists believe this process started as a human survival tactic known as conditioned taste aversion. Essentially, this tactic reminded our ancestors what plants and berries and fungi would make them ill.

But how does it all work? How does the brain remember tastes? And how long does gustatory memory last? Let’s start with the basics.

What Is Gustatory Memory?

Our body is made up of several systems, including the skeletal system, cardiovascular system, nervous system, and the gustatory system. The gustatory system is an ecosystem of cells that — with a little help from the olfactory system — gives foods and beverages their flavor.

It all starts with the tongue that’s covered with tiny protrusions called papilla, which contain all your tastebuds. So when you pop a nice spoonful of chocolate ice cream into your mouth, for example, all these tiny receptors start buzzing and linking chemical structures to that rich, creamy substance.

Typically, there are five chemical structures your taste buds recognize:

  • Sweet (strawberries, candy, or ice cream)
  • Salty (tortilla chips, processed meat, french fries)
  • Sour (lemon juice, citrus fruits, vinegar)
  • Bitter (coffee, red wine, kale)
  • Savory (popcorn, pizza, steak)

Taste buds send taste signals to the brain where they’re processed and analyzed in the brainstem. The brainstem, in turn, files through a thousand different unconscious reactions and triggers a bodily reaction. Based on how a particular taste is perceived, you might feel nauseated or release a satisfying yawn.

But the brainstem does more than jumpstart your body into a physical response. It is also the home of the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for emotional memory and survival mechanisms, like the fight or flight response. This is where the chemical structure of food plays such a critical role. Depending on specific taste signatures, you might get hit with a wave of nostalgia that takes you back to grade school, drinking cold water out of the hose on a hot summer day, or to your early adult years, when boxed pasta dinners were all you could afford to eat most nights.

After the brainstem, all those taste signals cruise to the gustatory cortex where they all converge into one incredible explosion of the senses.

It’s a fast journey — so fast, it doesn’t even register in our consciousness.

The Influence of Taste on Memory

In his book, Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust uses vivid prose and imagery to describe a particular experience with taste memory:

“…and as soon as I had recognized the taste of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime blossom which my aunt used to give me … immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set … and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.”

This passage accurately illustrates the emotional connection between the perception of taste and psychology.

And as we continue to explore various ways our senses influence memory, we’re likely to find the areas of the brain responsible for taste dramatically impact our ability to create and retrieve various memories.

Taste and Memory Care

At The Moments, we’ve witnessed how significantly food and diet can impact the emotional health of our residents. That’s one of the reasons we take tremendous care to nurture and celebrate our residents’ sense of taste through nutritious and delicious mealtimes.

Want to learn more about gustatory memory and sensory design? We’d love to walk you through our process of incorporating sensory stimulation into the daily routines of each resident.

Published On: August 4, 2022