This past Thanksgiving, I noticed an unusual feeling of contentment and it occurred to me that the food and memories must be linked and the smell of the food can evoke memories long buried in our consciousness. People usually can identify when they ate a meal that is so memorable it is permanently lodged in their brain. It is such a strong memory that even hearing the name of the dish or restaurant evokes a flood of emotions. Walking by a restaurant that was the scene of a romantic encounter can teleport you back to that very meal, just as walking into a candy shop and seeing an old, favorite treat can remind you of a childhood moment when that candy meant very much to you.
Food memories like these are very common and many people don’t give them much thought. Why are food and memories so closely linked? Researchers have long studied this question and have begun reaching some compelling reasons. Experts in the medical field have also started using the food-memory link to treat patients with dementia.
Before exploring the psychological reasons for the tie between food and memory, it is important to understand how this occurs based solely on the sensory system. Food memories are often strong because they utilize each of the senses. Most people have probably experienced a deep memory just by smelling something, like clean laundry or fresh lawn clippings. But when the sense of smell, taste, sight, sound and touch are combined while eating, the memory can become even more vivid. Researchers believe that taste memories can be among the strongest one can have based on a principle called “conditioned taste aversion,” a survival tactic that helps one remember if something was eaten previously and was either poisonous or caused illness. This principle states that this memory biologically helps to prevent one from repeating the mistake in the future when this food is encountered.
Nostalgia, a psychological phenomenon which causes a person to long for the past for a variety of reasons, also comes into play with food memories. Experts have studied the link between nostalgia and memory and have found direct links. Thinking about certain restaurants or dishes can transport someone back to when they shared food there with loved ones or ate a satisfying meal. If the meal was for a special occasion or was shared with a special group of people, the food memory will stand out more strongly. Merely watching a person cook pasta can take someone back to childhood. Sitting at a counter can evoke memories of watching their Mom or Dad do the same. However, more is at play here than just the sensory system.
Biological and psychological reasons
Beyond sensory and nostalgia-related reasons for people having strong food memories, experts point to evolutionary psychology and parts of the brain that are dominated by survival and reward instincts. Many evolutionary scientists and researchers assert that anything related to food in general may receive special treatment in the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, the hippocampus, because of the biological need for nourishment. Before the days of fancy steakhouses, humans often faced situations based on remembering certain things about certain foods. As humans evolved, so did the human brain’s ability to store information about the foods. Because of this, humans such as hunter-gatherers were able to provide for their families and groups in an even more effective way and improve life expectancy and overall health. Finding food was crucial in the days before it was widely available, so it is logical that the hippocampus was pivotal in ensuring the survival of early humans.
The hippocampus is a very important part of the brain, and it deals with more than memory. Psychologists who study how the way the brain works say the hippocampus works closely with parts of the brain that are responsible for emotion and smell. They say this could be another reason why food memories are so evocative. By combining the psychological need for food and the related emotions and senses, the brain gets active in storing and bringing forth these memories.
In addition to the big role the hippocampus plays , the dopamine system is also closely tied to food memories. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the reward centers in the brain, is generally released when sweet, tasty or particularly satisfying food is eaten.. Because of how the pathways of dopamine interact with other parts of the brain related to memory, researchers say these rewards can be stimulated by the mere mention or smell of a particular food.
How food and memory ties can help treat patients
After many years of work by researchers, it is becoming clear why food and memory are closely linked. The lingering question is how society can use this knowledge advantageously. One way health professionals are seeking to leverage this groundbreaking research is by using it to treat seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Specialized nursing homes across the U.S. have arisen in recent years with entire units dedicated to using senses and nostalgia to treat memory loss. Devices and activities have been developed around using nostalgia to spark a memory.. A common way nursing homes have done this is by playing music from an era that a patient lived in or has strong memories about. The sound of a recognized music may trigger memories in someone who otherwise cannot remember much at all That, in turn, gives the person a sense of peace and decreases memory loss-related anxiety. At the same time, professionals may also use food for the same purpose. Instead of just feeding a senior the food provided by the cafeteria, specialized memory units in certain nursing homes are researching their patients and serving meals that were popular during his or her earlier days or is something that the patient used to cook. By utilizing the strong sensory, biological and psychological link between food and memory, more progress is being made than ever before in treating memory loss challenges.
Huffington Post, Power of Food and Memories, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/power-of-food-memories_n_5908b1d7e4b02655f8413610
Harvard Press, Food and Memory, https://harvardpress.typepad.com/hup_publicity/2012/05/food-and-memory-john-allen.html
CBS News, Reminiscence Therapy, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/reminiscence-therapy-to-trigger-dementia-patients-memories/