The Food-Memory Link

“Candy bar nostalgia puts us all on the same page.”

Bee Wilson

Scientific progress has reduced our understanding of ‘food’ to be the mere consumption of the essential components, including carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals, that are fundamental to the adequate development of the human body. This assertion conveniently negates the sensorial qualities of food that trigger nostalgia, emotions and experiences, invoking warmth and a sense of belonging.

Food, though a vital requirement for the sustenance of the human body, has a sensation of affection and intimacy associated with it. Most of us have inseparable childhood memories attributed to food, which are so distinctly painted in our brains that they bring with them, a surge of sensory emotions.

The Food-Memory Link: Candies

As we move from childhood innocence to the age of experience, we limit the sensory qualities of food to a portion of our brain and incline ourselves to the scientific facts and practicality behind consuming food. This decreases the number of our food memories, leaving our brain with a few childhood remembrances to cherish. 

We unconsciously avoid the natural therapy of attachment, love and warmth that food could have provided us with, and go on to seek it in the material aspects of life. Our brain understands this phenomenon and automatically associates adulthood or our present state with desolation while our childhood with love and happiness. 

Science Behind The Association Of Food, Senses And Memories

The Food-Memory Link: Human Brain

“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”

Vladimir Nabokov

The first impulse in the brain is initiated through the smell of the food, which is recognized and processed by the olfactory bulb of the brain, connected with the amygdala that processes emotion in conjunction with the Hippocampus, attributed to memory.

Hippocampus is a part of the brain associated with the conversion of short term memory into long term memory. Incorporating the receptors of the digestive system that regulate appetite, digestion and eating behaviour, this segment of our brain plays a crucial role in the regulation of emotions and smell.

Whenever we consume a delightful meal, Hippocampus activates the reward centre of our brain which initiates the release of dopamine, ‘the happy hormone’ of the body. Hence, the event that produces pleasure to our body is converted and stored as a happy memory in our brain.

The Food-Memory Link

Hardley Bergstrom, a neuroscientist and an assistant professor of psychology at Vassar, explains the intensity of the taste memories. He asserts that food memories derive their strength by functioning on the phenomenon of Conditioned Food Aversion.[1]

For example, if you ate vast quantities of pizza on a party night and caught food poisoning the other day, your brain and body are likely to develop an aversion against that food item. Pizza from that day will become synonymous to sickness for your brain.

“Every bite is a memory and the most powerful memories are the first ones.”

Bee Wilson

Evolutionary scientists and researchers regard food as a privileged target of memory in our brain. They conjecture that the biological need for human nourishment propels the Hippocampus of our brain to receive any stimulus linked to food with special treatment.

Susan Whitbourne, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts asserts that the food memories are privileged by the Hippocampus over other memories as they embody all the five senses in their functioning and outsmart the other memories in their sensory qualities.[2]

Hence, when we are intensely engaged with the stimulus, for example, when we persistently endeavour to conjure a typical smell or taste of a food item to our senses, it has a dominant impact on our brain which promotes it to retrieve the sensory emotions and symbolic events of that particular moment.

Hippocampus assisted the early hunter-gatherers in differentiating between the good and bad food items, while through evolution it assists us to contrast between the good and bad memories linked with the smell, taste and the effects of consuming that food item.

Symbolism and Senses

The Food-Memory Link: A kid with strawberries

Symbolism heightens the sensory qualities of food and modifies it into an experience. It becomes an occasion which impregnates our brain with memories, of which, we distinctly remember the location, setting, people, conversations, smell, sound and taste, consenting the abundance of food to flow into the abundance of memories.

David suttons remarks that food memories assist us to learn about our culture through the metaphorical symbols assigned to food smells, flavours and textures that resigns us to our past. And hence, enables us to manifest cultural doctrines which we reconcile in our present time and space.[3]

Food Memories And Identity Formation

The discussions we have at our dining table, the people with whom we eat and the thoughts that intrude our cooking and eating process, leads to the unconscious and gradual formation of our identity. Elisabeth von Essen and Fredrika Mårtensson, of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, conjectured that our future coping skills are determined on the strength of the fundamental base, formulated by the quality of association between food and family.[4]

This idea further links to the Attachment Theory which speculates that a strong base formed during our primary growth years contributes great flexibility towards the challenges we confront as we stride into adulthood.

The Food-Memory Link: A girl eating cupcake

Food memories play a crucial role in identity formation as a specific smell of a food item stimulates our ‘smell memories’ which are correlated with autobiographical recollection. We ‘recall’ and ‘relearn’ the aspects of our narratives through these memories.

‘Sense memories’ feed the fundamental need of humans that is ‘To Belong’. They evoke nostalgia which assists us to reconsider our past, associate it to our present and hence, to our current selves.

Overcoming Isolation Through Food Memories

The Food-Memory Link: Lollipops

Any food product that enables us to get through the phase of isolation and despair is termed as comfort food. It evokes nostalgia and assists us to recollect the memories of our meaningful social relationships which decrease our feelings of seclusion.

In a study performed in July 2015, Jordan Troisi, an associate professor of psychology at Sewanee, The University of The South proves that people with strong bonding in their relationships consume comfort food as a coping mechanism against the emotions of self-isolation.[5]

Marcel Proust defines remembering as an act of “reliving and relearning” which leads to a psychological impact on our being. This Proustian effect is further employed as a therapy in the process of psychological healing.[6]

Food-memory relation is even used to treat people suffering from Alzheimer and Dementia. The United States has endeavoured to set up special nursing homes which are committed to the treatment of memory loss through the medium of senses and nostalgia.

Food not only serves to fulfill our biological requirement but also supplements us with a sense of psychological fulfilment.

“Pull up a chair. Take a Taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.”    

Ruth Reichl

Liked this piece? Also read, The Law Of Attraction: Ask, Believe And Receive.

Leave a Reply