Well, then. Hello!
I’m still in Ireland, having been analysing my electroencephalogram data for the past two weeks with the help of a collaborator, so I’m sorry for the protracted blogular silence. Far too busy to write decent blog posts, and I can’t really bake things in a hotel room when I get back from analysing data every day, unless I tear up the floorboards and get a fire going with them and wrap bakeable things in aluminium foil and cook them in the embers. It’s good weather outside for making a sorbet or something, though.
So just a quick update for now, and it wouldn’t be The Island of Dr Gâteau without some baking and some science. So here’s the baking, not done by myself, as you may be able to ascertain from various subtle clues:
(Macarons from the Ladurée boutique in the Brown Thomas department store here in Dublin – bitter chocolate, orange blossom, fig and date, violet and blackcurrant, red fruit, and pistachio.)
As for the science…
Maybe this is just me (and 90% of the people I know) but are you familiar with the whole “dessert stomach” phenomenon? You know, you eat an enormous meal, you feel like your stomach is about to split into shreds of over-strained, tormented muscle, yet when someone mentions the possibility of dessert, somehow you discover that you’d be quite able to eat dessert, possibly a large amount of it, regardless of your previous extreme satiety. It’s as if you’ve got an extra stomach off to the side that’s reserved specifically for dessert.
Or like how I just ate an enormous bowl of bibimbap and feel thoroughly full, yet I’m actively considering going out and getting a crêpe stuffed with Belgian chocolate and strawberries. Whyyyyy?
This is a pretty well-studied phenomenon (not just by myself in an unofficial capacity after many meals), with it being repeatedly demonstrated that variety definitely influences habituation to food. That is, you get sick of a particular type of food during a meal, but if a different type is introduced, you can eat more than you would have if it was just the one original type of food.
But how similar or different do foods have to be for a person to be able to continue eating after they’ve habituated to one type of food? If variety influences habituation, what is “variety”? If I give you a bowl of macaroni and cheese made with elbow pasta and you eat as much as you can, then I give you a bowl of macaroni and cheese made with spiral pasta, is that sufficiently different for you to be able to keep on eating a bit more? Or do I need to give you chicken nuggets to make it different enough from spiral macaroni and cheese so that you can keep eating?
In an amazing and remarkable act of extra-special good fortune, research can answer exactly those questions. Exactly. And guess what? Spiral macaroni and cheese is different enough from elbow macaroni and cheese for someone to keep eating it after they’re sick of the elbow stuff.
One suggestion as to what’s happening in the brain at this point is that a different part of your memory is being activated by the new food if it’s sufficiently different from the previous food. A particular set of neurons responds to the first type of food as you consume it, and these neurons allow for the emotional and sensory aspects of the food to be processed (so, how much you enjoy it, what the flavour and texture are like, etc).
However, over time, these neurons become less and less active because they can only be really active for so long, and this results in the habituation – you get sick of the food, and those neurons can’t go back to a state of high activity until they’ve recovered (for maybe at least a few hours). But a new food that’s adequately different from the first food – that activates a different set of memory neurons, and the whole process can start again. Not from scratch, obviously, since you’re not going to eat forever just because your pasta is now a slightly different shape again – your brain is still getting feedback about how much food you’ve eaten and how full you are (which it assesses by getting information about hormone levels, and from nerves relaying information about how stretched the stomach is, and so on).
So there you go. I was quite surprised at how little variety or difference is required for someone to keep eating despite having previously habituated to a food. I usually have to at least change from a savoury food to a sweet one. And of course, it has pretty interesting implications for unhealthy eating habits such as over-eating the wrong kinds of food. So comparing spiral macaroni to elbow macaroni – it has important health implications. You go tell people that.
Anyway then, I’m dreadfully sorry for not commenting on all the blogs I usually do – if I’m a frequent visitor of yours, rest assured that I’m reading what I can, and I’ll be back to commenting fervently and admiringly in a few weeks or so. Until then, I’m afraid the fair Emerald Isle beckons, and I’m off to London next week which should be delightfully hectic and fun. In the mean time, if you’re in the mood for a festive drink and quite fancied the butter beer I posted a while back, take a look at the Buttered Beere post at 12 Bottle Bar – David has done an absolutely phenomenal job of properly contextualising and researching the drink, including getting some highly illuminating information from a professor of food history on all of those historical measurements that I had no idea where to even start with when I tried to make the buttered beer recipe out of the Huswifes Handmaide. Amazing.
In lieu of a recipe, following are a few photos from my Irish travels so far.