Imagine the fanciest possible restaurant. If you never go to places like that, picture one from a movie -- white tablecloth, everyone has wine and there is soft, classical music playing in the background.
Now imagine a cheaper, family dining type place, like T.G.I. Friday's. There's loud pop music, often to the point that you can't hear yourself think.
On top of the table full of screaming kids, making you question your decision to never punch one.
Obviously these establishments are putting some thought into what they want their customers to hear. But why? Is it all about atmosphere? Not according to science. First, when you eat in places with high noise levels, you lose the ability to accurately gauge how sweet or salty your food is. It has to do with the way your brain is wired -- continual loud noises whip the neurons of your ear up into such a rage that for no reason they stage an all-out assault on the weaker neurons of your taste buds.
A cynical person could say that restaurants with lower quality food crank up the noise so that you're less likely to notice it, but we have no way of knowing that (maybe they just think the music adds to the "fun" atmosphere).
"One more Nickleback song and I'll burn this place to the fucking ground."
That's not to say that the optimum eating experience means dead silence -- otherwise that sad, lonely sandwich eaten quietly over the sink in your apartment wouldn't taste so much like shame. Science agrees with those stuffy restaurants you were imagining at the beginning -- if you pipe in music at a volume of between exactly 62 and 67 decibels (about the level that human conversations are held) the food served will be rated as tasting nicer than the exact same food served outside of this specific volume range. There, the music is just audible enough to arouse the senses, but low enough as not to overwhelm them (also, classical music works best). For the senses, the difference between soft and loud music is like the difference between an invigorating swim in a cool swimming pool and having somebody dump a bucket of ice water over your head.
All of this applies to drinking establishments too, by the way. Research found that your opinion of wine largely depends on what kind of music is being played while you drink it. Subjects changed their ratings of the wine by up to 60 percent depending on the soundtrack, which we're assuming means you could open a joint selling prison-brewed toilet wine by the glass, as long as you played fancy music while people drank.
Nothing knocks a girl out like a '68 Pruno.
2Your Personality and Mood
You already know that people eat fatty and sweet food when they get stressed out -- the snack food industry pretty much depends on this for half of their yearly sales. The simple explanation is that when we're in a bad mood we want to eat something that will make us feel good; the sciencey explanation has to do with how sugar and carbs can boost the levels of Serotonin in the brain. But, strangely, stress can also change the way food tastes to you.
In a somewhat diabolical 1998 study, scientists asked a group of people to each taste a sample of artificial sweetener, and then they went about stressing those people out. They first assigned them each a task of unscrambling a series of jumbled-up words, which might not sound very stressful, but the scientists deliberately designed half of these puzzles to be unsolvable. Oh, and there was a machine which blasted a horn into their ears at completely random intervals.
After this bout of torture, the group was then asked to taste another sample of artificial sweetener and rate how bitter and sweet this sample was compared to the first sample they took. The group rated it as being more bitter, and less sweet than the exact same stuff they ate before the scientists went about pissing them off.
"It's OK, those men can't hurt you anymore."
Does that mean that, because the stressed-out brain wants you to eat something sweet, it makes you perceive foods as being less sweet so that you'll eat more of it? The scientists don't take it that far, though it is interesting to note that strenuous physical exercise does the opposite -- when physically exhausted, you're more likely to taste the sugar in whatever you eat or drink. So if after a long run you chug some Gatorade and suddenly feel like somebody has shot you in the mouth with a sugar cannon, that's why.
And on top of all of that, scientists have found different people taste foods differently based on, not just their mood, but their overall personality. Different chemicals in your food react to different chemicals in your brain, thus the foods you like aren't just personal preference, they say something about how your brain works. Depressed people can't taste sweetness as well, people with panic disorders don't taste bitterness as strongly as others.
Which means all Robert Smith can taste is corn.
So keep that in mind the next time you shove something in a friend's face and say, "OH MY GOD YOU HAVE GOT TO TRY THIS ITS SOOOOOOO GOOD" and after taking a bite they ask if you're high. It's not just personal preference, they are literally tasting it differently than you.