We never get tired of optical illusions (particularly that mind-melting one with the gray squares) -- it's good to remind yourself that your senses can't be trusted. But the one sense you'd think you could trust is taste -- nobody is going to convince you that a hamburger is apple pie.
But, as with the other four senses, your taste is manipulated by a whole bunch of factors outside of your control. Like ...
#5. What Your Mom Ate While You Were a Fetus
Obviously, the food you ate as a kid growing up will influence your tastes for life. But it starts earlier than that. In fact, the foods your mother ate while you were in the womb influence what your favorite foods will be.
As well as the food she bathed in.
The study on this was carried out by researchers from the not-at-all-evil-sounding Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, who had pregnant women drink a bunch of carrot juice while pregnant and then while breastfeeding (with various groups changing up when they drank it). The results? The kids whose mothers were given the carrot juice, regardless of the stage when they were given it, were less grossed out when fed a carrot-flavored cereal one month later.
"My mom only ate whiskey and corn nuts."
And in fact, the kids whose mothers had carrot juice during both stages (during pregnancy and during breastfeeding) reportedly couldn't get enough of the stuff. And this is freaking carrot juice we're talking about here.
It makes sense in a way, considering the food your mom ate flavored both her breast milk and the amniotic fluid that surrounded you in the womb. Still, you'd think the residual carrot flavor would be imperceptible, having filtered through her body in the course of metabolizing it. You might like the taste of pork gravy but you wouldn't want to go lick the sweat off of a guy just because he eats it every day.
Oh, come on, what's suggestive about that?
But, science says you're wrong. So go try it.
#4. The Label -- Even If It Lies
It would be no surprise to find that, for instance, people think food in fancy packaging is better than something of equal quality that came in a box featuring a picture of a poorly drawn clown and Comic Sans font. That's why artists and designers get paid, it's why labels exist in the first place. But the influence a label has on the actual taste experience runs much deeper, and much weirder, than that.
First there's the experiment that found that simply labeling a food -- in this case, bologna -- as low-fat will result in people rating it as tasting worse than the equivalent full-fat version. No low-fat food was used in the experiment at all, meaning that both times, the participants were actually eating the full-fat bologna, the stuff they'd presumably eaten at some point in their lives and should have been familiar with.
"OK, now this one has the same fat content, but I shit on one half. Go."
Even weirder, a study conducted in 2002 found that simply adding the name of a substance onto the list of ingredients was enough to make people taste it within the food they're eating. Specifically, they gave the same nutrition bar to two groups, but for one group they added the word "soy" to the label (the bar had no soy in it). The soy label group thought their bars tasted much worse. They were almost four times as likely to say it had a weird taste than the group eating the exact same bar, only without that word on the label.
And those results hold up even when trying to filter out opinion -- these people weren't just asked if it tasted "good" or "bad." The testers with the supposed soy in their bars complained that it had an aftertaste, the other group didn't. The soy labellers also said the bar was "grainy."
The phrase "poop-like" was used several times.
All of those tastes and sensations were perceived only because they had (apparently) been conditioned to equate soy with tasteless health food. So, seeing that word on the label literally made it taste that way.
#3. Background Noise
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.