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A senior couple wearing aprons and tasting food in the kitchen

The science of taste is a fascinating case study. So many unique intricacies make the way we interact with food and drink deeply personal. It’s funny, we all have the same parts of the brain responsible for taste, yet we respond to flavors in wildly different ways. Some of us love the kick that comes with spicy curry, while others prefer the savory flavor of steak and potatoes. Then, there are those of us that can’t get enough sweets.

Our response to taste is just as unique as our personality. And, in a surprising twist, our enthusiasm for — or aversion to — various flavors is directly linked to our evolutionary history. It’s passed down through genetic code from our ancestors, who all happened to be really good at sniffing out plants and herbs and berries that might be harmful.

We crave sugar because our ancestors ate fruits and berries. And it was somewhere in the realm of 2.6 million years ago that meat became a regular part of our diets. Some argue that this shift played a significant role in our evolution towards becoming the humans we are today.

What’s more, even though we may have a natural instinct to avoid the bitterness that warned our ancestors of toxicity, our minds and bodies learn over time that some bitter stuff — like coffee or tea or alcohol — really isn’t that bad. In other words, we’ve learned to adapt our tastes to suit our preferences and not just our biological needs.

All of this makes the exploration of taste memory a deliciously surprising experience.

But what is taste memory, exactly?

The answer is surprisingly simple: If you’ve ever gotten sick after eating a favorite meal and still, after all these years, can’t bring yourself to eat your mother-in-law’s famous beef and noodle stew, you’ve experienced taste memory.

And while there’s no fancy scientific name (like echoic memory or haptic memory) for this specific phenomenon, it’s highly researched and very real.

Our sensory system grants us the amazing capability of distinguishing 100,000 different flavors. That’s a much broader spectrum than the traditional five flavors usually discussed in scientific circles:

  • Sweet, the taste of natural sugars found in fruits.
  • Salty, the taste of sodium and chloride (salt crystals).
  • Bitter, the taste of different proteins found in plants.
  • Sour, the taste of acidic solutions like lemon juice.
  • Savory, the taste of proteins and amino acids found in meats and cheese.

What Is Taste Memory and How Does It Work

Let’s be honest: evolution essentially dictated that our sense of taste carries considerable value, and the way we physically and mentally respond to taste continues to advance. Our minds and bodies adapt, and foods that we’d typically avoid become delicacies.

Flavors draw us in, sending waves of mixed emotions coursing through our veins with each bite. And the process for this is pretty remarkable.

It starts in the mouth, after taking that first bite of something packed with flavor. As we chew, enzymes in the saliva start breaking down the food, bouncing off all these tiny little protrusions called papillae. Think of them as almost microscopic homes, and they all house a significant number of the 4,000 taste buds located on the top and sides of the tongue.

When taste molecules are broken down enough, they latch onto itty bitty nerve cells at the bottom of the taste buds that transmit signals to the larger facial, glossopharyngeal, and vagus nerves — which then transport those taste signals to the base of the brain to be processed and analyzed.

And this is where taste memory kicks in.

Imagine you bite into your favorite childhood food — maybe it’s tater tots or a grilled cheese sandwich — and as you eat, you find yourself overcome with a profound sense of nostalgia and joy. That’s because taste signals are zig-zagging around the ventral forebrain, where they light up the areas responsible for storing emotional memories. As you chew, you’re not just remembering a specific time and place — you remember how you felt in that moment.

That’s the true importance of taste and its influence on memory. It keeps us connected to our past in ways that our other senses (except maybe smell) cannot. That, and it still plays a role in our long-term survival.

Taste Memory at The Moments

At The Moments, we know why food can be such a comfort for some and a frustrating inconvenience for others. It’s because the parts of the brain responsible for taste assign specific values to certain flavors — and our emotional well-being is directly linked to that process.

We also understand how significantly food and diet can impact the cognitive abilities of our residents — and that’s why we’ve put an incredible amount of thought into the structural design of our facility and the development of individual care plans. Because we’re all unique, and our minds and bodies respond to different sensory stimulants in different ways.

Visit us to learn more about our focus on taste memory.

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