You Taste With Your Brain, not Your Tongue

Have you ever wondered what's going on in your brain when you taste your favorite food? Here, you can find out what's known about your magnificent sense of taste.
You Taste With Your Brain, not Your Tongue

Last update: 27 November, 2020

You’ve probably heard the expression “That person has a very discerning palate”. But this statement isn’t entirely correct, since, in reality, you taste with your brain, not your mouth. Our understanding of the sense of taste is still very limited. However, data from different empirical studies support the following ideas.

Eating is a basic task that’s essential for your survival. However, many disorders are related to our choice of inadequate food.

Taste has a lot to do with how much and what you decide to eat. Therefore, understanding how it works could help you avoid certain disorders. Such illnesses can be due to too little food, too much food, or the poor quality of food you might choose.

A happy girl eating chocolate, demonstrating you eat with your brain.

You taste with your brain

Without a doubt, the first contact you have with the taste of any food occurs in your mouth. When you taste any food, its flavor initially impacts the taste buds located on your tongue, palate, and pharynx. However, immediately afterward, messages are sent from these locations to the information receiving centers of your brain. These areas then interpret the received signals.

Understanding taste

Firstly, this sensory information reaches the postcentral area of your parietal lobe. This is where most of the projections from the sensory input systems are received. However, in addition, these messages activate the insular cortex of the brain, which is responsible for identifying what flavor you’re tasting.

This was discovered in a study where a group of people was analyzed with functional magnetic resonance imaging while trying different flavors and foods. The study found that the brain insula decodes the signals that arrive from the taste buds, and they react in a different way to each new flavor. Therefore, it’s the activation pattern, not the activated brain area, that lets you know what flavor you’re tasting.

Acceptance or rejection

But the phenomenon goes much further. The information sent by your senses when you taste food also reaches the amygdala. This region is located in the temporal lobe and is responsible for identifying whether a flavor is pleasant or not. Hence, you either accept it or reject it.

It’s a fascinating fact that the same flavor can elicit two completely opposite reactions in two different people. For example, many people absolutely love chocolate, while others may hate it. It’s believed that your amygdala is responsible for making this evaluation.

However, your sense of taste and taste preferences do evolve, either by training or simply passage of time. For instance, as a child, you may have thought that coffee tasted horrible, but as you grew older you began to appreciate it. Thus, your opinion actually changed quite dramatically.

Memory

There’s a region of the brain that helps you remember if you’ve previously encountered a particular flavor. This is the limbic system which houses the sensory memory of your sense of taste. Thanks to this system, you’ll know whether you tried a particular food before and what you experienced if and when you did try it.

This is the way in which you “educate your palate” to remember subtleties and distinguish flavors. For instance, when you take a wine or olive oil tasting course. As you try and become familiar with the different flavors, you’re also able to remember and identify them.

Implications of the knowledge that you taste with your brain

There’s still a lot to learn about how your taste functions. However, the findings described here have made it possible to understand how it works a bit better.

And so we know that your brain is able to differentiate between different flavors and determine how you react. We also know that you can train your brain to remember and differentiate between the subtleties of different flavors. For this reason, it’s advisable that, whenever you eat or drink, you give it your full attention. 

However, it’s yet to be discovered why certain foods might be delicious to one person and horrible to another. As soon as we reach that milestone, we’ll be able to make great strides in the development of healthy eating.

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  • D’Angelo, S. (2019). The sweet spot. Human Ecology47(1), 13-13.
  • Ohla, K., Busch, N. A., & Lundström, J. N. (2012). Time for taste—a review of the early cerebral processing of gustatory perception. Chemosensory perception5(1), 87-99.