On Aroma and Emotion

aroma and emotionOver the past several weeks, I’ve been digging into microbiologist Malfeito-Ferreira’s literature survey on holistic wine tasting.  One of the more interesting dimensions of his discussion is his inclusion of emotions in the construction of olfactory conceptual spaces. This is of particular interest to me because I devoted Chapter Five in Beauty and the Yeast to a discussion of emotions in wine.

His treatment of this topic is cursory but highly suggestiv,e and the studies he links to show a robust role for emotions in our responses to food, and by implication wine. (There is not much science yet on the role of emotion in wine tasting.)

There has, of course, been a good deal of research on how emotions influence eating behavior, but studies of the influence of food on mood and emotions is of a more recent vintage.

Malfeito-Ferrera takes the position that emotion relating to liking or not liking is an integral part of the perception of smell in part because olfactory stimuli are directly routed to the part of the brain that processes emotion:

The unique properties of the sense of smell led Yeshurun and Sobel (2010) to define it as an emotional sense, where the emotion is not a result from the sensory stimuli but an integral part of the perception (Table 1). For these authors, the odour object is the integration of its pleasantness, induced by its external state (volatile molecules), with the subjective internal state when it is sensed. In fact, the first spontaneous reaction to odourants is a verbal description related to pleasantness (e.g. “it is good” or “I like it”) in accordance with the processing of emotional information in the olfactory bulb (Kermen et al., 2021) or in the human piriform cortex even before odour perception (Schulze et al., 2017).

But many researchers have concluded our emotional responses to food go beyond mere liking or not liking. For instance, Chrea et al. (2009) in “Mapping the Semantic Space for the Subjective Experience of Emotional Responses to Odors” developed a multi-dimension scale for measuring emotions elicited by odors.  They summarize their findings as follows:

“…the subjective affective experiences or feelings induced by odours are structured around a small group of dimensions that reflect the role of olfaction in well-being, social interaction, danger prevention, arousal or relaxation sensations, and conscious recollection of emotional memories”.

Their scale included 73 emotion-terms divided among 9 dimensions: happiness-wellbeing, awe-sensuality, disgust-irritation, soothing-peacefulness, energizing-refreshing, cooling, delicacy, heaviness, healthiness, and sweetness. Among the 73 emotion terms they included were carnal, delicate, harmonious, stinky, dirty, persistent, sensual, angry, sickening, etc.

The odors tested run the gamut from savory aromas to household/cosmetic aromas, to fruity, floral, or animal odors.

In a follow-up study using a more restricted list of emotional dimensions Chrea et al showed that for pairs of odors that did not significantly differ in liking among test subjects, there were substantial differences in emotions that were also not connected to liking

Group 1: Energetic–invigorated–clean; nostalgic– amusement–mouth-watering; and romantic–desire–in love showed more robust differences than Group 2: happiness–well-being–pleasantly surprised; disgusted–irritated unpleasantly surprised; and relaxed, serene, reassured. The latter group was hypothesized to be less related to liking/not liking than the former, suggesting that emotional responses are not simply expressing preferences.

This is important. It isn’t particularly surprising that test subjects might respond to food with emotions related to liking or not liking. That food can elicit a wider range of emotions indicates the degree to which food can be an expressive medium.

There is some question in the literature regarding whether people respond to food names or the actual food. As Köster and Mojet report in their literature survey, From mood to food and from food to mood: A psychological perspective on the measurement of food-related emotions in consumer research:

Cardello et al. suppose that food names reflect stable and broader cognitive images and associations, whereas tasted foods vary over time due to perceptual variability, changing expectations and preceding appetitive contexts. Thus, they make implicit statements on the roles of memory and perception in the emotional effects. The question then arises what is meant by stable and broader images and what types of associations (situational experiences during the first or later emotional encounters with the product, remembrances of special eating events and habits or relationships with other people) are evoked by the food name. As mentioned above, it is clear that we do not remember the products we have eaten before by the recollection of something like a detailed internal representation (see Morin-Audebrand et al., 2012 for an overview), but that our food memory is directed at novelty and change detection. Furthermore, food names and tasted foods both evoke associated memories of previous eating occasions and are thus linked to emotions experienced on these occasions.

Does remembering chocolate evoke a stronger memory than eating it? Emotional responses to food memories are likely to be deeply influenced by the situation in which it is consumed or the people we consume it with. Thus emotions such as satisfied, good, happy, pleased, energetic, active, enthusiastic, merry, adventurous, loving, affectionate, eager, guilty, good-natured, friendly, calm, nostalgic might be responding to situational memory rather than the food itself.

Most of this research is of interest to the food industry in trying to understand consumer responses to their products. But it provides empirical support for the view that taste and aroma evoke emotions inviting comparisons to art and music.

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