What Is Neurogastronomy?
According to Wikipedia, Neurogastronomy is the study of flavor perception and the ways it affects cognition and memory. This interdisciplinary field is influenced by the psychology and neuroscience of sensation, learning, satiety, and decision making. Areas of interest include how olfaction contributes to flavor, food addiction and obesity, taste preferences, and the linguistics of communicating and identifying flavor.
Neuroscience is only part of this emerging field. The many other areas that comprise neurogastronomy are listed below.
Among others, these fields include:
- Culinary arts
- Behavioral psychologists
- Clinical neuroscientists
- Bench neuroscientists
- Agriculture and food technologists
This new science, first conceived in 2006, the field has now evolved into its own area of learning that delves into the molecular biology of the olfactory receptors, the biochemistry of food preparation, and odor images and the brain flavor system. Essentially, neurogastronomy shakes up how we look at food and taste: Instead of investigating how researchers can alter the taste of food by re-engineering what we eat, this science concentrates on how we can re-wire the brain to perceive food differently. In essence, this science means that rather than change broccoli to simply taste better, neurogastronomy seeks to concentrate on how to work with the brain to perceive food differently—to think those vegetables are delicious and worth eating rather than sweets.
The term neurogastronomy was coined by neuroscientist Gordon M. Shepherd.
Gordon M. Shepherd is a professor of neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine and former editor in chief of the Journal of Neuroscience. He has made fundamental contributions to the study of brain microcircuits, as summarized in his highly regarded edited reference work The Synaptic Organization of the Brain. His current research focuses on olfaction at the level of microcircuits and how they construct the spatial patterns of smell, which are essential to the perception of flavor.
Shepherd begins Neurogastronomy with the mechanics of smell, particularly the way it stimulates the nose from the back of the mouth. As we eat, the brain conceptualizes smells as spatial patterns, and from these and the other senses it constructs the perception of flavor. Shepherd then considers the impact of the flavor system on contemporary social, behavioral, and medical issues. He analyzes flavor’s engagement with the brain regions that control emotion, food preferences, and cravings, and he even devotes a section to food’s role in drug addiction and, building on Marcel Proust’s iconic tale of the madeleine, its ability to evoke deep memories. Many more specialists work in many different fields and also they united into International Institute of Neurogastronomy or International Society of Neurogastronomy, to create a platform for a more deep study of Neurogastronomy.
The fact that eating (well, poorly, a lot, a little or not at all) influences our behavior, our mood, and our decisions seem so self-evident that very few people have taken the trouble to evaluate the consequences. A study of the sentences handed out in an Israeli court, for example, found that judges were much more lenient after their lunch break than just before it2, for which the obvious explanation lies in another quote from Brillat-Savarin: “They saw that a full stomached individual was very different from a fasting one.”3
So, what exactly is ‘taste’? We generally use this term in its emotional, hedonistic sense, to describe the tendency of food or drink to produce a pleasant sensation, to be delicious. Here, researchers had to contend with this everyday use of the word ‘taste’, albeit somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, we think of taste as one of the five distinct senses Aristotle classified alongside smell, touch, sight, and hearing. On the other hand, the ‘taste’ of food seems to go beyond the simple activation of taste receptors embedded in our tongues, enabling us to distinguish between sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, and sourness, the four ‘primary tastes’ to which we now add umami, a taste typical of Japanese food with a high glutamate content. In reality, as Brillat-Savarin rightly noted, it seems that this second aspect of ‘taste’ is primarily a result of our sense of smell and that these two senses are inextricably linked in our appreciation of food and drinks. So as not to get bogged down in linguistics, specialists use the term ‘flavor’ when referring to the perception of food based on olfaction and gustation (among other things… as we will see below).