What Happens in Your Brain When You Taste Food: Camilla Arndal Andersen (Transcript)

Following is the full text of neuroscientist Camilla Arndal Andersen’s talk titled “What Happens in Your Brain When You Taste Food” at TED Talk conference. You can download this transcript as PDF; link given at the end.

Camilla Arndal Andersen – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

So I had this very interesting experience five years ago.

You know, me and my husband, we were out grocery shopping, as we do every other day. But this time, we found this fancy, I’m talking fair-trade, I’m talking organic, I’m talking Kenyan, single-origin coffee that we splurged and got.

And that was when the problem started already. You know, my husband, he deemed this coffee blend superior to our regular and much cheaper coffee, which made me imagine a life based solely on fancy coffee and I saw our household budget explode.

And worse…I also feared that this investment would be in vain. That we wouldn’t be able to notice this difference after all.

Unfortunately, especially for my husband, he had momentarily forgotten that he’s married to a neuroscientist with a specialty in food science. All right?

So without further ado, I mean, I just put him to the test. I set up an experiment where I first blindfolded my husband. Then I brewed the two types of coffee and I told him that I would serve them to him one at a time.

Now, with clear certainty, my husband, he described the first cup of coffee as more raw and bitter. You know, a coffee that would be ideal for the mornings with the sole purpose of terrorizing the body awake by its alarming taste.

The second cup of coffee, on the other hand, was both fruity and delightful. You know, coffee that one can enjoy in the evening and relax.

Little did my husband know, however, that I hadn’t actually given him the two types of coffee. I had given him the exact same cup of coffee twice.

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And obviously, it wasn’t this one cup of coffee that had suddenly gone from horrible to fantastic. No, this taste difference was a product of my husband’s own mind. Of his bias in favor of the fancy coffee that made him experience taste differences that just weren’t there.

All right, so, having saved our household budget, and finishing on a very good laugh, me especially — I then started wondering just how we could have received two such different responses from a single cup of coffee.

Why would my husband make such a bold statement at the risk of being publicly mocked for the rest of his life? The striking answer is that I think you would have done the same. And that’s the biggest challenge in my field of science, assessing what’s reality behind these answers that we receive.

Because how are we going to make food tastier if we cannot rely on what people actually say they like? To understand, let’s first have a look at how we actually sense food.

When I drink a cup of coffee, I detect this cup of coffee by receptors on my body, information which is then turned into activated neurons in my brain.

Wavelengths of light are converted to colors. Molecules in the liquid are detected by receptors in my mouth, and categorized as one of five basic tastes. That’s salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami.

Molecules in the air are detected by receptors in my nose and converted to odors. And ditto for touch, for temperature, for sound and more. All this information is detected by my receptors and converted into signals between neurons in my brain.

Information which is then woven together and integrated, so that my brain recognizes that yes, I just had a cup of coffee, and yes, I liked it. And only then, after all this neuron heavy lifting, do we consciously experience this cup of coffee.

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And this is now where we have a very common misconception. People tend to think that what we experience consciously must then be an absolute true reflection of reality.

But as you just heard, there are many stages of neural interpretation in between the physical item and the conscious experience of it. Which means that sometimes, this conscious experience is not really reflecting that reality at all.

Like what happened to my husband. That’s because some physical stimuli may just be so weak that they just can’t break that barrier to enter our conscious mind, while the information that does may get twisted on its way there by our hidden biases. And people, they have a lot of biases.

Yes, if you’re sitting there right now, thinking… you could probably have done better than my husband, you could probably have assessed those coffees correctly, then you’re actually suffering from a bias. A bias called the bias blind spot. Our tendency to see ourselves as less biased than other people.

And yeah, we can even be biased about the biases that we’re biased about. Not trying to make this any easier. A bias that we know in the food industry is the courtesy bias. This is a bias where we give an opinion which is considered socially acceptable, but it’s certainly not our own opinion, right?

And I’m challenged by this as a food researcher, because when people say they like my new sugar-reduced milkshake, do they now? Or are they saying they like it because they know I’m listening and they want to please me?

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