The forgotten sense

stollen d

As an recent practice in sensory description, student choose a photo from a number of bucolic childhood scenes – playing on a sparkling clean snowy hill, sitting by a fireplace with doting grandparents, lounging in the shade of perfectly formed trees, etc. They were required to use descriptors for all the senses. Well, not quiet all senses but the five major ones. However, one did include the sense of balance in as part of the dizzying sled ride.

But, when it came to illustrating the required sense of taste, every single student choose to describe something that tasted sweet. Granted humans are only suppose to be able to differentiate between five tastes:  sweet, sour, bitter, salty and the newly discovered one that we have been attracted to all along, the savory flavor found in meat. However, in our experience these tastes are combined in a various percentages; add to this is the potent sense of smell and voila! The results are the almost infinite combinations that we associate with the various tastes.

Descriptions of taste, like that of smell, have the power to invoke strong emotions, and bring memories lingering beneath the conscience to the surface. Well, at least that is what Marcel Proust claimed. He stated that long into his adulthood he remembered nothing of his childhood in Combray except for immediately family and a brief visit of a certain Charles Swann that interfered with his normal bedtime routine. At least, until a bite of madeleine sponge cake dipped in tea triggered a nostalgic episode of involuntary memory. Then childhood memories began to ooze back, such as eating this same madeleine snack with his invalid aunt. Each memory lead to another, which he wrote down, until they became a flood resulting in seven volumes entitled À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, (commonly called Remembrance of Things Past in English).

What is so powerful about taste? Our perception of how delicious food is depend not just on the taste of the food itself, but also the color of the food, the temperature of the food, the level of sound when we are eating , the smell of the food and what we have eaten in the past. An adept description of taste actually affects all of our senses. But is takes a bit of perception to fully encompass taste with words; the English language doesn’t seem to be heavy with taste descriptors.

Finally, why did the students only tend to capture the same expression of sweet tasting things? Memories of good times are more easily recalled than those of disappointing or stressful times; maybe good tastes are more memorable that bad ones – and most of us have a sweet tooth.

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