Psychologists Explain Why Food Memories Can Feel So Powerful

It's not just about the dish.
An old photo of a birthday boy. The combination of the food with the celebration and the people attending it is just the recipe needed for making powerful food memories.
Jeff Nagy
An old photo of a birthday boy. The combination of the food with the celebration and the people attending it is just the recipe needed for making powerful food memories.

Most of us have a memory of a food that takes us back to childhood. It can be as simple as a candy bar that we used to get as a treat during our youth, or more involved like a lemon bar recalling your first baking disaster. No matter the importance, memories involving food are vivid ― and they sometimes feel more evocative than other types of memories.

“Food memories are more sensory than other memories in that they involve really all five senses, so when you’re that thoroughly engaged with the stimulus it has a more powerful effect,” explains Susan Whitborne, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts.

You’re not just using your sight, or just your taste, but all the senses and that offers the potential to layer the richness of a food memory.

Psychologist and neuroscientist Hadley Bergstrom, assistant professor of psychology at Vassar, takes it one step further. Bergstrom told HuffPost that “Taste memories tend to be the strongest of associative memories that you can make,” and explains that it’s because of a survival tactic called conditioned taste aversion.

Conditioned taste aversion is basically what happens when you get food poisoning and as a result, develop an aversion to a dish, ingredient or an entire restaurant for a certain amount of time.

“With conditioned taste aversion the effect of the sickness is so profound that even though you get sick hours after you’ve eaten the food, you’ll still make these extremely strong memories about what food you ate and where you ate the food,” Bergstrom said.

While this doesn’t directly relate to some of our happy childhood food memories, it does make a case for just how powerful our food memories are.

Our senses and survival tactics aren’t the only elements at play when it comes to food memories. The situation ― where you were, who you were with, what the occasion was ― adds the most power to our nostalgic taste memories.

“Food memories feel so nostalgic because there’s all this context of when you were preparing or eating this food, so the food becomes almost symbolic of other meaning,” Whitbourne says. “A lot of our memories as children, it’s not so much the apple pie, for example, but the whole experience of being a family, being nourished, and that acquires a lot of symbolism apart from the sensory quality.”

“The idea of nostalgia,” Bergstrom says, “is that the sauce [for example] is associated not only with yummy pasta, but also with grandma and her home ― that’s because food is so reinforcing. All of this stimuli in the environment become associated with the reinforcing properties of that yummy pasta sauce.” Bergstrom, as a neuroscientist, uses food in his behavior studies for this very reason.

That’s the nature of food memories. They aren’t just based on the facts, or our need for survival, but are shaped by the context ― the company, the situation and the emotions involved.

My step-mom always recounts how great her grandmother’s vanilla pudding was when she made it for her as a kid. She, at 57 years old, has been trying to recreate it since she was old enough to be cooking in a kitchen. It’s a flavor she can practically taste through her memory of that dish, but one that she has not been able to reproduce successfully. And it’s because she can’t recreate the context. She can make great vanilla pudding, but she can’t go back in time to the excitement she felt as a child for being given such a treat, by a person who was such a loving and nurturing force in her life.

Bergstrom concludes, “This is in the reinforcing nature of food, and that is what drives memory formation in the brain.”

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