Do we really taste coffee with our brains?

Beyond the Sensory: How we Taste with our Brains

Do we really taste coffee with our brains?
Posted on January 18th 2016 by Maddie

Our last Blog entry of 2015 began exploring the complexity of taste. Our taste buds simply act as transmitters sending signals to the brain. Together with an array of other sensory stimuli, we are able to process what we consume. It is our brain which perceives flavour. Leading us to the question, do we really taste with our brains?

Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, has done multiple studies demonstrating how people’s perceptions ultimately affect their concept of taste. His studies on human sensory perception are done by examining our integration of information from the five senses. It is incredible the influence each has on our concept of reality. For example, how does a crunch of a potato chip effect its taste? The louder the better!

Furthermore, beyond the sensory, how do cognitive factors of knowledge and expectation contribute to our taste experience?

Packaging’s Influence on Flavour

Of the numerous studies Spence has done concerning external influences on flavour has been a study examining whether the colour of your coffee mug would affect your perception of the taste.

Spence’s result demonstrated that mug colour holds a significant influence. The colour of the mug affected participant’s perceived rating of the coffee.

Coffee served in white ceramic mugs scored higher intensity than the other mugs. Spence speculates that perhaps this is owed to the colour contrast between the white mug and brown colour of coffee. He and his colleagues report that the colour brown is often associated with bitterness. In this particular case, the colour contrast of the white ceramic to the coffee would enhance the perception of bitterness.

However unconscious these colour influences are, it is evident they have quite the impact on our impression of taste. In 2011, Coca-Cola had a special edition white-coloured can hit the shelves to raise funds for endangered polar bears. Consumers complained that it did not taste the same and believed Coca-Cola had altered their special formula. Coca-Cola quickly switched back to their classic red can. Could you guess that it is the colour red is associated with sweetness?

Memory

Historically, taste has always been a matter of survival. The ability to test the food we consume. If you became sick after eating something, your body may respond by becoming nauseated when presented with it again. Taste aversion is our brain telling us not to make the same mistake twice.

Our sense of smell is also closely connected with memory. The olfactory nerves go directly to the amygdala, the area in the brain involved in our emotional learning. It has been theorised that this is why some smells can cause such vivid memories. The smell of a French Press of Kick Ass® waiting to be poured can take you on a nostalgia roller-coaster to that camping trip in Kootenay National Park.

Expectation

Did you ever think that the latte art your barista creates could affect your taste experience? One of Spence’s other experiments found that latte art prompted drinkers to believe their coffee tasted better as it implied it had been expertly prepared. Which it generally has, as trust me, latte art is not easy.

This goes to show our perception of taste can be attributed to expectation. As Charles Spence explains, “When you see art on top of your cup, hear the gurgling, grinding, hissing and dripping of the machine, it a very rich sensation that's all about expectation.”

Separately, Neuroscientist Jack Nitschke did a study at the University of Wisconsin on expectation and its influence on our sense of taste. Volunteers were given an assortment of pre-mixed drinks and associations were made based on labels (pleasant/unpleasant). The participants were then sent to the MRI for brain imaging. Mixing up the pre-associated labels, the subjects still responded to their initial association of pleasant or unpleasant. 

Nitschke and his researchers reported, “That neural responses to taste in the primary taste cortex are modulated by expectations and not solely by the objective quality of taste," (Nature Neuroscience).

So, yes our expectations are tied to our taste experience. They call it expectation assimilation. If you expect a food to taste unpleasant it will, same bias if you have good expectations.

No wonder our coffee always tastes great!

Rocky Mountain Setting

Eating is not only vital for our survival, but also an incredible multi-sensory activity. Next time you sip your Kicking Horse® Coffee, pay attention. What colour mug do you sip our coffee out of; imagine an experience at our Kicking Horse Coffee® Café in beautiful Invermere, BC. I have a feeling our coffee’s taste is definitely enhanced when enjoyed in the Rocky Mountains.