Flavor, Memory, and Emotion

smell and emotionThe smell of food or wine is a remarkably efficient activator of distant memories. The particular smell of Mom’s apple pie is capable of calling forth a picture of a moment in life richer in detail than any snapshot in an album. It is extraordinary that, although I can struggle to remember my cell phone number or a friend’s name, the mere whiff of a certain scent of vanilla ice cream can cause me to vividly picture the isolated, mysterious old home on the coast of Maine where my parents would take my brother and me to find homemade ice cream. That was well over 50 years ago but the quality of the image appears not to have diminished.

But such memories are not always pleasant. Despite their intriguing appearance and fascinating chemical properties, the smell of eggs makes me immediately nauseous and brings back painful images of the old farmhouse kitchen where my mother would force me eat them when I was a toddler—she was a wonderful mother but a bit of a nutrition Nazi.

Aromas seem to have a direct line to our episodic memory banks, and the nose seems to win out over the eyes or ears when it comes to evoking memory. Of course the ability of food to evoke memories of the homeland for immigrants has been well-documented.

But while smells enable us to “call up” memories of people, places, and events, it is much more difficult to call up the smell memories themselves, which in part is what makes blind wine tasting difficult. While, it is easy to remember the particular blueness of a car I used to own, I can’t remember the smell of those force-fed eggs despite their emotional resonance. In fact, I can’t really conjure up memories of any smell. When I try, it is always a visual image of the object of the smell that pops into my mind.

This may be because we lack a decent classification scheme for smells that would help us to conceptualize them. But I suspect it has more to do with role of taste and smell in forming our mental representation of the world. Memory works by associating the diverse stimuli that are effecting us at any particular moment, and the encoding of those stimuli gives more weight to experiences that are emotionally charged.  The role of taste and smell is that it seems to help in encoding context within memory. Smells evoke what surrounds them or what is associated with them in memory.

Thus, smells and tastes function as a kind of symbol machine always standing for something else. And what they stand for usually has emotional resonance.This is the key to understanding how food or wine can express emotions via this ability to encode context.

Philosopher Elizabeth Telfer in her book Food for Thought argues that, unlike music, food cannot express emotion.

“A cook can cook as an act of love, as we have seen, or out of the joy of living. But whereas in music the emotion is somehow expressed in the product itself—the music can be sad or joyful, angry or despairing—in food the emotion is only the motive behind the product.” (pp. 59-60)

I think this is wrong. Music cannot literally be sad—music lacks a nervous system; it is not the sort of thing that can have emotions. When music expresses emotion it does so because it evokes a feeling response in us.

But so does food, via its connection to memory—one more reason for thinking we should not exclude food from the fine arts.

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