John S. Allen’s The Omnivorous Mind is an examination of the cultural and biological truths revealed by our evolving relationship with food. From the diets of our earliest ancestors, to cooking’s role in the evolution of the human brain, to the preoccupations of contemporary foodies, Allen’s take on how and what we eat is consistently revelatory. Below, Allen looks at the powerful role food plays in human memory. Also below, listen to a conversation with Allen on a recent episode of our podcast.
Not that long ago, at the counter of a gas station out in the country, something yellow and red caught my eye—it was a Bit-O-Honey candy bar wrapper. I had not had a Bit-O-Honey bar for nearly 40 years, having moved as a child from Bit-O-Honey’s midwest base to California. So I bought one. As I unwrapped and ate it, certain memories quickly came back to me: the difficulty of getting the inside wrapping paper off the sticky taffy, the little rectangles meant to be broken off one by one, the initial hard chewiness that always made me wonder if it was stale, and finally, the honeyed flavor of the taffy itself, offset by little bits of nut. The memories did not stop there, however: in an instant, I was transported back in time to the back seat of my parents’ car, looking out the window at the apparently endless rows of corn stalks that passed by for hour after hour as we drove down highways and interstates. I thought about AM radio and the backs of my parents’ heads. I finished my chunk of Bit-O-Honey, got in my car, and drove back to the present.
We all have our food memories, some good and some bad. The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting. Food is an effective trigger of deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body. So my Bit-O-Honey experience is not all that unusual. Search for websites with the word candy combined with vintage, retro, or nostalgia, and it becomes readily apparent that many people use candy as a pathway to the past. But why should this be the case?
There are several reasons. First, evolution has seen to it that food in general may be a privileged target of memory in the brain. There is a part of the brain called the hippocampus (one in each hemisphere) that is critical for memory. The hippocampus is particularly important for forming long-term, declarative memories—those that can be consciously recalled and which contribute to the autobiographies that we all carry around in our heads. The hippocampus is also important for spatial memories, which may be its primary role for animals that do not possess language. The hippocampus has strong connections with parts of the brain that are important for emotion and for smell. This may explain why emotional memories can be so vivid or why certain smells trigger a sense of recall in us even before we consciously remember an event.