Taste in the face

There’s no art
to find the mind’s construction in the face.

Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 4

I might be going out on a limb when I suggest that Shakespeare probably wasn’t a neuroscientist. I’m sure I can find some Shakespeare conspiracy theorists to tell me how wrong I am and that Christopher Marlowe was also a talented geneticist in between writing Shakespeare’s work, but for that line in Macbeth to suggest that our faces do not betray our thoughts and feelings and intentions indicates clearly that Shakespeare had a very poor understanding of modern social neuroscience research between the 1970s and 2010. How embarrassing for him.

These are “Old Fashioned” snickerdoodles, based on the sweet and bitter taste combination of the Old Fashioned cocktail. (This recipe is from the book The Boozy Baker, which Dan bestowed upon me after returning from a social cognition workshop via NYC and San Francisco — thanks, Dan!) One interesting bit of research looking and both sweet and bitter tastes found some very intriguing results about how our faces react to those tastes, and also how changing our emotional state changes our ability to perceive tastes. Who would have thought — eating is tied in with feelings! (Hi to all the other emotional eaters out there. Let’s have a piece of cake to celebrate how interesting neuroscience research is!)

In a study by Greimel et al., researchers video-recorded people’s facial expressions as they were drinking either a sweet chocolate drink, a bitter quinine drink, or a bitter-sweet carbonated drink. (The chocolate drink was Müllermilch Schoko and the carbonated drink was Schweppes Bitter Lemon, if you’re planning on replicating this experiment in the comfort of your own home or laboratory.) The researchers later watched these videos and scored a range of particular facial movements (brow lower, lip press, upper lip raise, etc.) to see what people did with their faces when they tasted a bitter or sweet taste.

In a not highly surprising result, sweet and bitter tastes elicited different facial expressions. Bitter tastes warranted brow lowering and lip raising just prior to swallowing, then brow lowering and mouth opening after swallowing, and on the odd occasion, a smile, presumably by the people cynically amused by their unfortunate situation of having to drink something gross like quinine. Sweet tastes reliably resulted in lip sucking before swallowing, lip wiping after swallowing, and of course, smiling (including the Duchenne smile, which is when you smile with your eyes as well as your mouth — yes, it has a name!).

So the specifics are interesting but overall, none of this is all that surprising — we all make the faces too and we’ve all seen other people make the faces. But the other thing the researchers did was that after people had tasted all the different drinks, they were shown one of two movie clips. One group was shown a clip that was intended to make them feel happy, whereas the other group was shown a clip that was intended to make them feel sad. Then — they tasted the different drinks again.

And what did this show? It showed that changing someone’s emotional state makes them perceive tastes differently. More specifically, people who had watched the happy clip then found the sweet chocolate drink even sweeter and more pleasant. People who had watched the sad clip then found the sweet chocolate drink less sweet and less pleasant. How nice this chocolate drink tasted was dependent on whether the person was a bit happier or a bit sadder.

This was not the case, however, for the bitter-tasting drink. Watching the happy movie clip or the sad movie clip didn’t change people’s ratings of how bitter or unpleasant the drink was. A potential explanation of this is that sugary sweetness plays with the neural wiring of our emotions a bit more because the brain wants to reward us for seeking out energy-rich sugar by giving us a pleasant, hedonic experience after we eat something sweet. Bitterness, on the other hand, doesn’t really need that kind of emotional involvement. It might play a role in telling us what foods to avoid, since bitterness can be associated with toxins in the things that our ancestors might have been jamming in their mouths to see if they were any good for eating — but if something is bad for us, and it tastes bitter when we eat it, and then we get physically sick from it, that association between the bitter taste and physical sickness is an association that doesn’t need more subtle emotional prompting from the brain to make us realise to not eat the bitter berries next time or we’ll end up with our stomach contents on our feet. Bitterness also doesn’t reliably tell us much about nutritional value of food. So if we want to learn to avoid something that could potentially kill us, probably better to not just have our brains’ perception of that bad taste be susceptible to our emotional state (and probably better to have a more emphatic response to bad food, rather than our brains just making us a feel a little bit sad after eating something potentially deadly).

So the next time you’re on a hedonic quest for enjoyment through the wonders of cake, chocolate, ice-cream, whatever, pre-emptively enhance your experience by watching something heart-warming or hilarious. If you wish to adhere to the rigours of scientific research, you can even use the exact movie clip used in the experiment in elicit the happy state. It’s this one.

Greimel et al. (2006). Facial and affective reactions to tastes and their modulation by sadness and joy. Physiology & Behavior, 89, 261-269.

Recipe for “Old Fashioned” snickerdoodles under the cut.

From The Boozy Baker by Lucy Baker. American measurements all intact for your conversion pleasure.

2 3/4 cups + 2 tbs plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups + 3 tbs sugar, divided
2 large eggs
2 tbs bourbon
4 or 5 generous dashes bitters
1 tbs freshly grated orange zest
1 tbs ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and 1 1/2 cups of the sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the bourbon, bitters, and orange zest and beat to combine. Gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until incorporated. (If the dough is very soft, freeze for 10 to 15 minutes before proceeding.)

Combine the remaining 3 tbs of sugar with the cinnamon in a shallow bowl. Roll the cookie dough into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls in the sugar-cinnamon mixture and place them on the baking sheets, spacing the balls about 2 inches apart. Using the bottom of a drinking glass, flatten each ball into a disk.

Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown at the edges but still slightly soft in the middle. Cool the cookies for 5 minutes on the baking sheets, and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

  14 comments for “Taste in the face

  1. September 19, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Ah, Jess, I think you’ll find that what you scientist people call the Duchenne has a far more common name created by none other that Our Royal Tyra Banks… the Smize. Sometimes I worry at your lack of ANTM knowledge… *shakes head*

    I’ll let this one slide, though, if you just slip me a couple of these cookies minus the orange zest. I do adore me some cinnamon…

    • Jess
      September 20, 2010 at 8:20 am

      Oh Hannah, you “misunderestimate” me. There are very few cultural memes that have eluded me during my extensive travels through the interwebs. I am indeed aware of the smize, but I believe it refers to smiling with the eyes irrespective of smiling with the mouth. One can smize without moving one’s mouth at all, thereby creating the appearance of “fierce” and possibly “ugly pretty”. Therefore the Duchenne and the smize are independent phenomena, although obviously more research is required to understand that subtleties and social implications of the smize.

  2. September 21, 2010 at 12:21 am

    That’s so interesting, Jess! And I love it that the eye-inclusive smile has it’s own name. Snickerdoodles are a favorite of mine and were also posted on my blog before I even had a decent camera. Perhaps a remake is in order 8).

    • Jess
      September 22, 2010 at 5:55 pm

      I’ve only recently discovered snickerdoodles (via a recipe in one of Nigella’s books — prior to that I’d never even heard of them) and the sugary-cinnamony-goodness definitely puts them in my permanent recipe rotation.

  3. September 21, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    You never cease to amaze Jess. I love this new side to your blog. It definitely makes for interesting reading. I also have to admit, like Hannah, I thought of Smize when I read Duchenne…..back from my old ANTM watching days before I got so into watching cooking shows.

    I will have to try out the snickerdoodles on my boyfriend as he loves bourbon and has been conducting his own experiments of incorporating it into food. I shall conduct my own experiment on him with this recipe.

    • Jess
      September 22, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      I have to admit that I didn’t have any bourbon and I wasn’t so keen on buying an entire bottle just to try it out in some snickerdoodles, so I used brandy instead (which is a legitimate substitute for whiskey in an Old Fashioned cocktail, since some recipes say brandy rather than bourbon). But I’m starting to think that maybe I should invest in some bourbon just because I’ve seen it pop up in a lot of interesting recipes, plus I like the things it gets paired with over at FoodPairing, so it seems like I might like baked goods that do contain it.

  4. September 22, 2010 at 4:35 am

    Looks delicious, your photographs are so lovely that I can almost smell the comforting cookie-baking smell, the cinnamon…

    • Jess
      September 22, 2010 at 6:00 pm

      Thank you!

  5. September 22, 2010 at 11:13 am

    I love the science in this post! I wouldn’t have thought that enhancing your mood would have such a great effect on how you perceive taste. Think of how much better chocolate would taste to an emotional eater if only she were happy while eating it!

    I love snickerdoodles and this Old Fashioned take on them is super cute. My brother loves Mad Men and last year we tried to find bitters, to no avail. I’ll have to look for them a bit harder to try and make this!

    • Jess
      September 22, 2010 at 6:39 pm

      I’ve certainly had the experience where I’ve been annoyed or upset about something, eaten some chocolate, then gotten even more annoyed or upset because the chocolate just isn’t doing it for me. Damn brain, ruining my chocolate experience!

      I can find bitters in most liquor stores, particularly the fancier ones. I refuse to believe that bitters cannot be found in NYC of all places! But yes, definitely get some if you can. I’ve had the plan for rather a long time to make some sort of lemon, lime and bitters cupcakes. One day I’ll get around to that.

  6. ERV
    September 29, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    I hate snickerdoodles.

    I hate them so much.

    Rotating grad students have ‘disappeared’ after bringing them to journal clubs.

    But I do love bourbon… *squint* This recipe intrigues me.

    • Jess
      September 29, 2010 at 12:59 pm

      What do you like? Tell me and I’ll invent a recipe that puts bourbon into it…

    • ERV
      September 30, 2010 at 10:19 am


      I havent met a pie I didnt like!

    • Jess
      September 30, 2010 at 11:07 am

      Bourbon pie it is then! I will have a think about how to get bourbon into a pie and I shall do it. Stay tuned…

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