By Miki Kawasaki
Anyone looking for proof of the truly multidisciplinary nature of Gastronomy would have been well advised to attend Gordon Shepherd’s lecture Neurogastronomy: What is it, and why does it matter? on October 24th. Shepherd is a professor of Neurobiology at Yale University whose research has largely focused on the olfactory systems in the brain responsible for processing the sensory information humans receive via their sense of smell. Keeping in mind the significant role odors play in articulating flavor, he has coined the term “neurogastronomy” to describe the pleasures of eating on a biological level. The key concept behind neurogastronomy, according to Shepherd, is that flavor does not exist in food, but is created in the brain. His interests lie in how the brain shapes our experience of food and influences our decisions regarding what to eat. In many ways, his work is biological proof of Pierre Bourdieu’s maxim that personal taste is “produced by conditions of existence which rule out all alternatives as mere daydreams”.
Shepherd’s research has implications for a wide range of topics familiar to students of Gastronomy, from the role of language in advancing food procurement among early humans to the present day obesity epidemic. Underlying these themes are the difficulties in modifying human behavior due to the entrenchment of neurochemical processes. In the case of food, this involves the role that memory and emotion plays in driving our cravings (think of Marcel Proust’s famous example of the madeleine). Shepherd points to research showing that the formation of food memories determines individual eating behaviors, leading to the conclusion that humans are most vulnerable to forming bad habits during the developmental stages of youth. He strongly believes that it is necessary to start looking at the neurological causes of disordered eating and to consider recent developments suggesting that the brain is more adaptable than previously assumed. Unsurprisingly, in an echo of the woes of food scholars who lament the lack of recognition for their field, research on the brain flavor system is still quite underdeveloped.
Shepherd’s lecture ended in a lively question and answer session, with many members of the audience inquiring about the nature of food addiction. While some questions focused on dietary frustrations (Why is it so hard for some people to stop eating? Can I get addicted to broccoli?), others sought to reflect on our perceptions of unhealthy eating (Is addiction a disease?). Shepherd’s overall response was that it is not only necessary to recognize these problems as a concern of public health, but to also consider the terms by which we frame our discussion of them. Shepherd urges that even in light of the melancholic view that human perception is a slave to past experience, food activists must be adamant in questioning and reforming the institutions that have resulted in the food dilemmas society faces today.
Gordon Shepherd’s latest book, Neurogastronomy – How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters, was published last year by Columbia University Press.