Flavor Recognition and Identification: Memories of Barnyards Past
by Rob Gray, Ph.D.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Flavor recognition and identification
Imagine yourself sitting back enjoying a new cigar. As you take a nice long draw and retrohale the smoke you think to yourself: “Mmmm, that tastes like something I have had before but I am not sure what.” As you take another puff, your thoughts continue: “Perhaps the flavor reminds me of wood or maybe cocoa or maybe… barnyard!”
That churning sound you hear coming from your head is your brain trying to access its hard drive…your long-term memory storage for flavors. An essential part of our experience with a cigar is linking the sensations we are currently receiving from our taste buds and olfactory receptors with the memory of something we have tasted in the past.
Flavor recognition is the feeling that we have experienced the flavor before – kind of like a flavor déjà vu. At this stage we cannot connect a name with the flavor; we just know it is familiar. Flavor identification occurs when we give a name to the flavor we are experiencing. Our ability to recognize and identify flavors in a cigar will essentially depend on two things: the catalog of flavor memories we have stored away, and the efficiency with which we can access them.
Types of Flavor Memories
One of the difficulties we will have in recognizing and identifying a cigar’s flavor is that we actually have two different types of flavor memories; and these types of memories can often interfere with each other. The first type is memories generated from actual sensory experience. For example, when you were a child and tried a cup of hot cocoa for the first time, the chemical reactions in your taste buds and olfactory receptors were converted into electrical signals that were sent to the “flavor processor” in your brain. This processor, called the gustatory cortex, is located deep in the center of your brain. Your experience of the flavors in the cocoa was then filed away in your gustatory cortex as a flavor memory. Certain cigars (like a sweet maduro) can produce a very similar pattern of brain activity and thus trigger your childhood memory for cocoa, resulting in flavor recognition.
The quantity and quality of this first type of flavor memory will depend on a variety of factors including: 1) childhood experiences, 2) current eating and drinking habits, and 3) “taster-type”. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Research has shown that our most vivid and persistent memories are formed when we are children. This is largely because at this stage in development the connections in our brain are “plastic,” that is, they can easily be changed based on the experiences we are having. When we become adults these connections become “hard-wired” and are harder to change. This explains why it is much easier to learn a new language as a child. Therefore, the catalog of flavor memories you have will depend, in part, on the richness and variety of experiences you had as a child (e.g., foods eaten, places visited). For example, a cigar smoker who lived exclusively in a city environment as a child is unlikely to have memories based on actual sensory experience of “barnyard” flavors and aromas.
Although it is more difficult to form flavor memories as an adult, it does still happen. That is why the current eating and drinking habits of a cigar smoker will influence their memory catalog. People that are more adventurous eaters and regularly try foods and libations from different countries and cultures will have a wider array of memories that can be called upon when trying to recognize and identify the flavors in a cigar.
Finally, the quality of your flavor memories will depend on your “taster-type” (see my article: Distinguishing Flavors in Cigars: Are you a Supertaster?). “Supertasters” will have much more vivid and detailed flavor memories than Nontasters. Supertasters store memories in “high resolution.” An analogy would be saving a high-resolution photo on your computer. When opened later, a “hi-rez” photo will reveal more details of the scene that was photographed.
The second type of memory is what I will call mental representations not associated with any actual sensory experience. This is a “memory” for what we think a substance should taste like based on our factual knowledge about the substance. For example, when someone says “this cracker tastes like sawdust” it is highly unlikely that they have ever eaten sawdust. Instead, the dry taste of the cracker in their mouth activates the language areas of their brain for words like “dry,” “powdery,” and “woody” and the brain identifies an item which seems consistent with these qualities: sawdust. In this case we are not remembering an actual sensory experience we had in the past, but rather generating a label based on our knowledge. I think that this happens a lot with cigars too…how many of us have actually chewed on a piece of cedar? We are more likely triggering a representation of what we think cedar would taste like if we actually tried it. Mental representations of what substances should taste like are stored in the language areas of our brain, which are located on the outside of our brain in the temporal lobe.
It has been shown that a mental representation of this type can actually
interfere with memories generated from actual sensory experiences,
an effect called verbal overshadowing. For example, as wine-tasters
read more and more about the types of flavors associated with different
wines, this knowledge can actually override their actual sensory experiences
when tasting a wine (Melcher & Schooler, 1996). This also likely
occurs with cigars. For example, as you read more and more reviews
telling you that a certain type of wrapper produces a cedar flavor,
the mental representation of “cedar” might get immediately activated
when you begin tasting wood flavors in a cigar, possibly blocking a
real taste memory for the actual flavor you are experiencing.
One of the main reasons “verbal overshadowing” occurs is that it is very difficult for us to describe the sensory experiences we get from taste and smell. Applying descriptions and labels to the flavors we are experiencing is called flavor identification and it’s the next stage in the process of describing cigar flavors.
Below: Use our flavor chart to help you identify flavors
As I look at the cigar sitting in my ashtray right now, I can think of dozens of words to describe the visual sensations I am observing: “chocolate brown,” “smooth,” “torpedo-shaped,” “thick ring gauge,” “veiny,” “white ash” and “red and gold banded.” On the other hand, I can only generate a couple of words for the flavor: “sweet” and “nutty” (and I am far less confident in the accuracy of these). This is in a large part due to the fact that unlike vision and hearing, the brain areas involved in flavor sensations are not well connected to the language areas of our brain. The flavor areas are heavily linked with the emotional parts of our brain. For example, it has been found that one of the early signs of clinical depression is a loss of the sense of taste. This occurs because the brain chemicals serotonin and noradrenaline, that are found in lower levels in depressed patients, play a crucial role in the areas of our brain involved in the senses of taste and smell. When people are given antidepressants, which raise the level of these chemicals in the brain, they actually report that foods taste more bitter and sour (Heath et al, 2006). This may partially explain why the mood we are in when smoking has such a profound effect on the experience we have with a cigar. A cigar that is fantastic when smoked to celebrate a wedding (positive mood = high levels of serotonin) will often taste very different when smoked after a hard day at work (negative mood = low levels of serotonin) because the chemical levels in the taste and smell areas of our brain will be different. Returning to flavor identification; because we have difficulty converting our experiences with smell and taste into words, we often rely on the factual knowledge of what a substance should taste and smell like leading to “verbal overshadowing.”
The memories we have of flavors are complex, often emotion-laden, and can be very difficult to verbalize. Furthermore, an individual’s catalog of memories that are used for flavor recognition and identification during cigar smoking, will vary greatly from person to person depending on both the number of different cigars we have tried and our non-cigar smoking experiences (e.g., type and quantity of foods tried). Some cigar smokers have a “Sears catalog” of experiences to browse through while others have only a sales flyer. Our ability to use this catalog will also vary -- some cigar smokers can easily find the “page” they want (effortlessly distinguishing flavors in a cigar), while others don’t even know what they are looking for. Fortunately, the quality and quantity of our flavor memories and our ability to access them are all things that can be improved – a topic that I will discuss in the next article in this series on distinguishing flavors in a cigar.
Heath, T. P., J. K. Melichar, et al. (2006). Human taste thresholds are modulated by serotonin and noradrenaline. Journal of Neuroscience, 26, 12664-12671.
Melcher, J. M. & J. W. Schooler (1996). The misremembrance of wines past: Verbal and perceptual expertise differentially mediate verbal overshadowing of taste memory. Journal of Memory and Language
About the Author
Rob Gray is an educator, researcher and writer. Rob conducts research in Human Factors Psychology at University of Birmingham, England.blog comments powered by Disqus