A matter of taste

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Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to perceive.

Yes, I know. That last word, if I was truly quoting Sir Walter Scott, should be “deceive.” That was my topic last month — how the practice of lying is so central to socializing among humans.

But this month, I’m talking about perception, which evidently (or should I say, apparently?) weaves no less tangled a web.

I recently read about several studies of flavor perception that found an interrelationship between our personalities and our taste buds. They are small studies, certainly not definitive. But they seem to be onto something.

For example, researchers have found that people (and rats, for that matter) who are particularly sensitive to bitter tasting foods tend also to be jumpier, less social, and more prone to anxiety that those who are not.

There appears to be a genetic element to this sensitivity, reflected in the number of fungiform papillae (what our taste buds for bitterness sit on) on our tongues.

The genetic link helps provide an explanation for the relationship: bitter tastes are often associated with toxic foods, so people who possess a keener awareness of potential poisons tend also to be more keenly attuned to other possible dangers in life.

Other studies associate different personality traits with people who enjoy bitter flavors more than most. These folks are the most likely to admit they enjoy manipulating, and even tormenting, other people in pursuing their goals.

On a more positive note, one might say such people are also more apt to explore opportunities and take risks, which contributes to human survival in another way.

Here’s another astounding result from recent perception studies: what we’ve recently tasted appears to affect how (and how strongly) we react to ordinary events.

In 2011, a study found that volunteers who took a swallow of an extremely bitter drink judged others more harshly for various actions than did people who had simply drunk water.

Similarly, more recent experiments found that volunteers expressed a more aggressive response to nuisances when they had tasted grapefruit juice rather than water prior to being asked.

And just as our taste may affect our feelings, the flip may be true. An experiment last year found that men whose sports team had just won a game judged a lemon sorbet to be sweeter in taste than the men whose team lost.

And yes, researchers have an explanation here, too: our taste buds for sweetness also possess receptors for the primary stress hormones we produce. So when stress hormones flood a person’s body, his taste buds for sweetness tend to be dulled.

In contrast, when the “feel good” hormone serotonin is released, we become more sensitive to sweet taste “and can detect it at concentrations that are even 27 percent lower than before the serotonin release,” according to an article in the Washington Post earlier this year.

These observations raise a number of interesting questions, about both our abilities to perceive and our abilities to feel.

We know there are elements of subjectivity when we perceive objects or situations with our senses. But we generally assume our perception of reality should be consistent over time, and not change with our moods.

Similarly with our feelings: We tend to assume that the way we feel about others reflects our “true” inner reality — not something as superficial as what we had for dinner or whether our ball team won or lost.

But it appears that situations that “leave a bad taste in our mouths” might well affect not only our perception of foods, but  our attitudes toward others and their behavior.

Can a person change his personality by changing his diet? Is it true that “we are what we eat” — in a psychological as well as physical sense?

It might be worth experimenting on ourselves a bit. If we’re in a “sour mood,” maybe it’s a good time for a piece of candy. If we want to enjoy an evening with our sweetheart, we probably shouldn’t choose grapefruit for a first course.

On the other hand, at least in my home, a good piece of dark chocolate — bitter though it may be — always brings a smile to my wife’s face. I’ll try not to think about that too much...