In our early years, we are taught about the five senses: hearing, sight, taste, touch and smell. These senses (supposedly) make up our own personal toolbox for perceiving the world around us, and we are initially taught that our senses give us an accurate representation of what we perceive: cookies always smell like cookies, cheezy poofs always taste oh-so-good.
This idea that our brain perceives the world exactly as it is starts to break down when we are exposed to optical illusions: images that differ from what we think is real. One of my favorite ones is on the right: the A square and the B square are actually the same shade of grey, even though we perceive them to be different. As it turns out, neuroscientists are increasingly finding out that most of our senses, not just vision, are far from perfect when it comes to representing the world accurately. How we feel, what we are doing, what we just did, pretty much anything can influence our perception.
In a recent study about perception, researchers investigated the relationship between morality and taste. They started by having participants read a short story. Not everybody got the same story to read: a third of the participants read a story in which something morally bad happens (shoplifting, or a politician accepting a bribe), a third read a story in which something morally good happens (a gift to a homeless family, or a good Samaritan stopping a mugging), and a third read a story in which something boring happens (a student choosing a major, or waiters chit chatting). The participants were then asked to rate the morality of the story, and not surprisingly, they rated the stories exactly as you would expect – the shoplifting and bribe-accepting as being morally bad, and so on.
The researchers then pretended that the study was over, and that they were now starting a new study that had to do with product-testing. The participants were asked to drink a teaspoon of a mysterious drink (in reality, diluted blue Gatorade), and then rate the taste of the drink on a scale from very disgusting to very delicious. Can you see where this is going?
As you might have guessed, the participants that had read a “morally bad” story rated the drink as more disgusting, and the participants that had read a “morally good” story rated it as more delicious (the ones who got the boring story rated it somewhere in the middle). That is to say, the participant’s experience of a moral judgment significantly influenced their perception of taste. Seems like we can’t trust any of our senses!
The researchers discussed the results of this study in the context of how we process morality and so on, but I think it’s even more interesting to think of this as a prime example of just how much our brain puts a personal slant on everything we experience. I also see implications for issues like overeating and emotional eating.
Can you think of a time when food tasted different because of emotional reasons? Share in the comments!
Reference: The bitter truth about morality - virtue, not vice, makes a bland beverage taste nice. (2012) Eskine KJ et al. PLoS One 7(7): e41159.