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.