Reward System Theories

Wired just put out a phenomenal article titled why do we like the taste of protein?.  The article examines a nutritional reward mechanism that we have which exists beyond the mouth. According to the article, mutant mice which were unable to parse the tastant sucrose learned to like it and prefer it to plain water as a response to nutritional information learned by the body much further along the digestive path.

This post flavor reward mechanism could be very powerful, but an interesting question is how does this reward mechanism get overridden by some peoples’ craving for dryness?

(also are there any other reward mechanisms we have yet to map?)

A dry wine has less nutritional merits than a sweet wine and yet many people end up preferring dryness. Therefore I think we might also find a reward from attentional distractors.

The pleasure response to attentional distractors (i.e. things like intense acidity or bitterness) could eventually override nutritional rewards facilitating the acquiring of acquired tastes.

This definitely expands the theory of acquired tastes I’ve tried to develop in past posts. To accrue an acquired taste, one reward system gets overridden by another. This might also only be possible if certain priorities get rearranged. Does mental health, when afflicted with stress and anxiety, get more priority than nutrition and our need for calories?

Another great tidbit from the article is the ancient cross modal analogy from Democritus in the 4th century b.c.

“Sweet things, according to Democritus, were “round and large in their atoms,” while “the astringently sour is that which is large in its atoms but rough, angular and not spherical.”  Saltiness was caused by isosceles atoms, while bitterness was “spherical, smooth, scalence and small.” -Democritus

Wow. I had never seen that before but those analogies look very similar to ones I use and very similar to the shape tasting syneasthete in Richard Cytowic’s The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

More to ponder! next book up, Compass of Pleasure

[One of the big additions I’ve made to the my reward system theory is the idea that food & drink with its ability to often defy language helps us take a break from language, and therefore lessen anxiety and find repose.

I think I only got half way through Compass of Pleasure before I put it down. I should probably take another look and see if they mention anything related to language & non-language.]

A Case For 21 And Other Small Insights

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Lately I’ve been enthralled with Stephen Macnik & Susana Martinez-Conde’s book Sleights of Mind, what the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions.

One of the interesting things they talk about is how sometimes children do not get the same pleasure out of magic tricks as adults because they do not have the same expectations that are violated.  Young children do not yet have firm expectations from the laws of physics so a trick that defies them is no big deal while an adult is dazzled.

Does any of this happen in culinary art?

We somewhat have 21 years of eating and drinking things whose aromas consistently correspond to elements of gustation.  If something smells similar to something else you had that was predominantly sweet you will expect gustatory-sweetness and probably be validated.  The same typically goes for other gustatory divisions.

But now at 21, you enter the highly abstracted world of alcoholic beverages.  A wine can smell sweet yet have all of its sugars converted to alcohol during fermentation.  Distillates and partial infusions can have all sorts of gustatory features removed.  Can this stimulate any kind of reaction that is similar to a magic trick and would the reaction be different if you did not have years to build up your expectations?

I previously theorized that we might have a motivational drive to like things such as dryness because they are attention grabbers and therefore can probably do things like dispel anxiety. Could we also have a motivational drive to like them because of their magic-like ability to defy our expectations? Besides many dry wines, an interesting example of drastic olfactory-gustatory non-convergence is Green Chartreuse.

Another claim I had made a while back is that the way we use language makes it hard to separate someone’s ability to parse a culinary experience from their ability to find it harmonic. Sleights of mind discusses contrast detection as integral to consciousness and attention, but how drastically does people ability to detect contrast in food differ?  Would studying contrast detection in food be easier if we use non linguistic forms to identify differentiation? Could you match a wine to a variety of colored images or construct your own after being somehow trained?


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Advanced Sensory Convergence Basics

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[Wow this post was long ago and its some terrible writing. Many of these ideas of been updated significantly since then.

If you are here with an interest in magic, consider these post where I reference the books Sleights of Mind:
Nature vs. Nurture vs. Cocktail – Holistic vs. Salient Creative linkage
Olfactory Phantoms and Illustrations of the Dynamics of Perception
A Theory of Wine & Food Interaction
Advanced Super Stimuli Basics
A Case for  21 and Other Small Insights]

I have recently been trying to synthesize and ton of new information and probably have been doing a horrible job. Don’t forget this is only a blog. So here goes.

I should probably start with an update of the olfaction in terms of gustation olfactory construct. The term olfactory construct seems proprietary, but comes from a book called Aroma: Cultural History of Smell. It basically refers to the divisions cultures uses to classify their olfactory world. Most all cultures use highly subjective symbolic divisions (things like good/bad, male/female, earth/water/fire), but it could be possible to use a fairly objective cross modal metaphors. I chose a gustatory analogy and it is at the moment based on my artistic intuition rather than hard science. Hopefully science will eventually validate my intuition, but while I’m waiting I’ll still use it to create beautiful things.

An interesting paper (Smelling Sounds: Olfactory–Auditory Sensory Convergence in the Olfactory Tubercle) talks of sensory convergence which is essentially the underlying idea of my construct. Other explanations like synaesthesia do not seem to have the right connotations.

Another great book I’ve been reading lately (Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About our Everyday Deceptions) speaks of mirroring functions in our brains that are important for anticipation. If we use one sense to anticipate another we may end up with convergence as we come to rely on the predictions.

Drastic illusions might happen when we consume highly abstracted foods. We seem to have 21 years of eating minimally abstracted foods until alcohol enters our lives. Things get wacky when you introduce fermentation, infusion, and distillation. 21 years of mostly correctly correlating olfaction and gustation becomes strange when the sweet aromas of a wine do not correlate to its gustatory structure because all it’s sugars were converted to alcohol. Our linguistic techniques for describing these experiences starts to break down.

So does a lot of the pleasure of drinking alcohol containing beverages rely on all this pent up convergence? Is a cocktail a multisensory magic trick?

Sleights Of Mind is also devoted to a study of attention and consciousness which has been a big focus on my culinary theory building. Culinary art is subject to similar attentional order of operations as the visual-auditory systems.  Attention to aspects of a flavor can be mapped and controlled just like the visual-auditory exploits of the magician. Same principles, different sensory modalities. And just like magic, the intuition of the artist might outpace science.

Another priceless nugget from the book is the notion of a sensory after image. Visual after images are the most well known but every sense experiences them. Reactive wine pairings might be based on these after images as well as the notion of a wine having a long finish.

Wine pairings may operate similar to Black Art stage illusions. In the illusion, we cannot differentiate between the black on black props (everything is wrapped in black felt) and the color of everything else is somehow enhanced and brightened. Matching gustatory aspects like acidity between wine and food could enhance and brighten other aspects similar to the props on magician Omar Pasha’s stage.

This high contrast effect might also explain some of the pairing strategies used in Francois Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food With Wine. I did not really enjoy his book. Chartier did not really define a pairing or articulate the results of interactions like an aroma or gustatory sensation being magnified harmonically or inharmonically. He also did not spend enough time with gustation when it is at least just as important to a harmonic reaction as the aroma of a wine.

Re-stimulating aromas is described in Auvray and Spence’s review, The Multisensory Perception of Flavor. They do not use the term after image, but describe mint gum whose aroma fades over the course of chewing but can be reawakened by introducing more gustatory sweetness (sugar). So what exactly is happening here and what else can we do with it? Maybe we could create a list of foods with aromas that produce the most intense and reactive after images. I’ll be the first to add Porcini mushrooms to the list.

Auvray and Spence describe the brain’s tendency to create locations for things that you are smelling. The other day I was eating meatballs and red sauce at work while a coworker was applying mint aromatized hand sanitizer. The aroma of the mint made the vivid and noticeable move from Sam’s hands to inside my mouth which was quite inharmonious. Quite the illusion. It would be cool if we could use it in a beautiful context.

Out of time, more to come!

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