Thursday, May 26, 2022

After a Taste-Bud Hiatus, Experiencing Candy Like a Six-Year-Old

I used to blog quite a bit about weird aspects of sensory experience, back when my central research interest concerned the vagaries of introspection and the strange things people say about their streams of experience. (See a few sample posts; some articles; two books.) I thought I'd share another today -- something striking to me -- though actually not that weird, I suppose.

About a month ago, I accidentally bit down hard on an unpopped popcorn kernel, "bruising" the teeth on the left side of my mouth. (Yes, that's a thing. My dentist tells me nothing is broken or cracked; it just needs time to heal.) It was remarkably painful to chew on that side, and for weeks I chewed entirely on the right side of my mouth, barely even letting food drift to the left side. Last week, I resumed gently chewing on the left again -- just soft things, carefully, experimentally. Having dessert one night, I was suddenly struck by how much sweeter the dessert tasted on the left side than on the right side. Remarkably sweeter. Different enough that the fact really jumped out at me, though I wasn't at all expecting or looking for it.

I was eating an "orange slice" candy. You know, one of these guys:

On the right side of my mouth, the candy was blandly sweet with a simple citrus flavor. On the left side, I experienced the candy as vividly sweet, zinging with orange. The contrast persisted as I moved the mass of candy around in my mouth. When I shifted the bulk to the right, it seemed to instantly lose flavor, like a piece of gum chewed too long. When I shifted it back to the left, the flavor brightened again.

I experimented with other candies over the next few days: lemon and lime slices, chocolate, peppermint sticks. I consistently found the left side sweeter than the right -- and not only sweeter, but also more vividly flavored in other ways. However, I found no similarly noticeable difference for savory flavors, or tea, or pure salt, straight lemon juice, or many of the other things I have eaten since. The effect was mostly or entirely limited to sweetness only, and the associated flavors of the sweet things.

I remember loving fruit slice candies when I was six. I would savor them for fifteen minutes, driving my parents nuts, who had to wait for me at the end of meals. (Now I tend to wolf down desserts: See my defense of dessert-wolfing.) The flavor of the orange slice resonated with my memories of youth. It was like my taste buds -- or the related sensory regions in my brain -- were six years old again. It seemed to me that the orange slice tasted to me now, on the left side of my mouth, in that amazing way it had tasted to me as a child, and then when I shifted it to the right side, it fell back into the blandness that I have since become accustomed to.

I'm not sure why the effect was limited to sweetness. In general, taste sensitivity declines with age, but the decline seems to be as strong for salty, savory, and bitter tastes as for sweet ones. My taste experience has probably dulled in multiple respects. Why sweetness only should rejuvenate, I have no idea -- even more confusingly, not simple sweetness only but the more complex flavors tangled up with sweetness, such as chocolate and sweet orange.

A week later, I find that the effect is still present, though diminishing. I want the vivid sweetness back! The experience acutely reminds me of how much of what we vividly experience recedes into a fog with ageing. A comparison point: I remember getting glasses as a teenager after years of slightly blurry vision and loving how sharp the world became. Now even the best prescription I can find will never make the world that sharp. I also feel that when I read fiction I don't quite as vividly imagine the scenes as I used to.

Middle age has its compensating advantages. I'm mellower, more settled. Even sensorily, things are open to me that weren't before: Presumably because of my diminished taste sensitivity, I can enjoy bitter coffee and sharp cheese. But the hiatus from left-side chewing, followed by some fleeting new candy raptures, has given a sharp new tang to my thoughts about sensory loss with age.

[image source]


SelfAwarePatterns said...

Seems like an interesting effect of sensitization on the part of the sensory taste buds on the left side of your mouth, coupled with habituation of the ones on the right side. It makes sense that this would be most evident with tasting sweetness (energy detection) since, evolutionarily speaking, if they haven't detected it in a while, it might mean it's less available, making it adaptive to become more sensitive.

A few years ago, one of my ears got stopped up with wax. After having it cleaned out, I was amazed how much more vivid that side of the world sounded. I wanted them to clean the other ear, but they wouldn't do it, since it looked normal. But it was probably the same sensitization effect. And I had the same feeling, that the sounds I was hearing seemed vivid in a way they hadn't since I was a kid.

Getting old stinks, particularly when you have reminders about how things used to be!


Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Selective satisfaction. I don't know how we do it, but we do. Might even be connected with our survival mechanism.

Unknown said...

Interesting observations! Here are a few thoughts:

Today, I was watering at my dad's house, where he has several citrus trees. One of them is a calamondin tree, which produces small, orange fruit that are extremely sour. I ate one, trying not to pucker or squint. Afterwards, the immediate sensation on my tongue was that of a dull sweetness. I thought of those optical tricks (not really illusions) where you stare at something for awhile, and then when you close your eyes you see the complementary color. It was as if my brain knew it had to "right the ship," so to speak, or perhaps my own saliva tasted sweet by comparison. Of course, if I had something sweet to wash the calamondin down with, I'm sure it would have tasted extra-sweet.

Also, with a 2-year old granddaughter in the house, watching her partake of nearly any sweets for the first time is amazing. That look on her face: I can only imagine what it is like for her to taste ice cream or chocolate for the first time! I'll have to try her out on jellied orange slices sometime...

Arnold said...

Living in the unknow here now as earthlings...
...perhaps capable of aspirations toward understanding life itself, thanks

chinaphil said...

I remember in one of your posts about immortality, you were worried about the boredom effect: that immortality may become ultimately unpleasant because you become bored of *everything*. Does your candy rejuvenation affect that judgment? One of the worries about immortality is surely that we age, and one of the bad things about aging (not sufficiently recognised, perhaps) is that our pleasures become literally less pleasurable.
But if that process can be stopped or periodically reset, as aging would presumably have to be stopped to make immortality possible, then at least on the strictly physical level, you could retain the same levels of pleasure as you have now. Which are pretty good!