Flavors When Hungry, More Seashell Sounds

Dear Matthew: Is it just me, or does food generally taste better when we’re hungry? I swear I can barbecue for the family at home and the food doesn’t taste special, but then we can go to the beach and make the same meal and it will taste wonderful to me. I’m not sure that makes sense, but I think that’s how I react to food. Does something happen to us that makes food taste better in your mouth when you’re hungry? — BBQueen, O.B.

Okay, Grandma made me answer this one. I was ready to let it go, but she applied her usual pressure (do your own laundry, no pies) until I gave in. So, okay, Queen, why not have stuff taste better when we’re hungry? It makes ordinary sense, but does it make science sense? Well, yep. “Hungry” has a lot of definitions, unfortunately. Nobody’s exactly sure how the system works because it’s a combination of chemistry, neurology, physiology, and psychology. And the psychology always throws off the science stuff and sends the lab coats back to their test ­tubes.

It’s pretty well established in lab studies that your sense of taste is all hopped up after you’ve been deprived of food for a while. The human tongue seems a bit more sensitive to the basic tastes of salty, sweet, etc. A big meal dulls taste buds; e.g., it takes more salt for a big eater to recognize the taste of salt at the end of a meal. And when we have a lot of a specific hunger-causing hormone in our bodies, we find food more appealing in all ways, visually and taste-wise. So it looks as though, yes, if you’re truly hungry, food is going to taste better. Hunger is the basic instinct that drives us toward food, so I guess it’s sensible that taste would be the reward for finding the ­food.

The fresh air, exercise, and good vibes of the beach probably add some of that psychological edge to the whole situation, even though you’re eating stuff you make at home. But consider that when you cook at home, you are constantly surrounded by the smells of the cooking food. Since smell is a major part of taste, cooking at home might give you “smell fatigue,” which is a recognized condition. You smell something long enough, and you lose your sensitivity to it (like the lady with too much perfume on). Anyway, I hope you and Grandma are happy now. Yes, you’re right; and, yes, science guys spend an awful lot of money proving some pretty obvious ­things.

Sound of the Seashore?

No, the sound of your blood vessels. Imagine recording sounds as faint as your ear can hear it…not possible, right? Now imagine recoding these sounds with a microphone surrounded by rushing water. Even more impossible. But as a result of millions of years of evolution, your brain has figured out how to cancel out that ever-present white noise. Problem is, if you put your fingers in your ear, or even worse: put a hollow shell (cupped hands, tin can, whatever) over your ears, your brain will have to adapt to the new environment before it can cancel out the sound again. That takes time. Until then you’ll hear the blood rushing around in your head. — Isabella’s Dad (in O.B.)

Oh, sorry, Isabella. This doesn’t mean that your dad isn’t the smartest man in the world, or at least O.B., but sometimes a bad fact gets in through the cracks and takes up residence before we even know it. This must be what happened to your dad and this roaring blood thing. Yeah, we sometimes can hear the blood in our ears, but that’s because it’s right there in our ears. And if you stick your fingers in your ears, it gets even louder, partly because you’re hearing your blood through your head bones. It’s the same way we think we’re terrific singers until we hear ourselves on tape and we’re amazed to hear how awful we sound. The song we’re hearing when we sing live is the sound that reaches our ears through our bones. The taped version is what everybody else hears, and it’s very different. Anyway, moving blood doesn’t make an ambient sound, and seashells get their sound from ambient noises. Scientists generally agree on this, partly because it’s been shown that if you put a shell up to your ear in a soundproof room, you hear nothing.

So, Isabella, your dad might need a few extra hugs for a while. He might look a little droopy. But he’ll be back to his old self pretty fast. And he’ll still be the smartest guy in, well, ­O.B.

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