Food and Sex
Why we are hard-wired for food pleasure
Posted February 27, 2017
“Good Food leads to Good Sex…as it should.” ~ Anthony Bourdain
You’ve had an annoying day.
No serious disasters on the home front, but enough nuisances to leave you quite piqued. The morning seems to trumpet in one fire after another, and after adding Smokey the Bear to your curriculum vitae accomplishments, you find yourself peckish as well as peeved as you trundle out for an overdue lunch.
You figure you might as well try the new place. The way the day is going, if it is horrible it is but par for the course and certainly couldn’t ruin your current mood. On the other hand, a good meal could turn your ship around. As you settle into your seat and pick up the menu, the waitress passes behind you with a grilled lamb steak spiced with ras el hanout. The scent hits you like a blackjack to the back of your head.
Without control, without direction, memories from years gone by cross the threshold into your conscious mind like unwanted Jehovah’s witnesses. You had not thought about that short-lived romance in forever and a day; now all those pleasant recollections form an afternoon parade for one at your table. But the mind’s eye showpiece is multisensory; the emotions wash over you. They are mellowed with the years and like a wine once a bit harsh to swallow, now you hold them in your grip, close your eyes, and immerse yourself in the warm sensation of subtle pleasures remembered. As Barbara Streisand once sang;
Memories may be beautiful and yet
What's too painful to remember we simply choose to forget
So it's the laughter we will remember
Whenever we remember the way we were.
Good times endure, if only in our mind.
But how could a simple scent unleash such a psychological tsunami?
Well it seems that food and sex have been bestest roomies since there has been food and sex; which is to say pretty much forever. Of all the senses, only taste and smell are predominately hard-wired directly into our brain. When we hear something, see something, or feel something, it is generally filtered first. But taste and smell home in on command central like guided drone strike.
Approximately 85% of taste is modulated through olfaction, or the sense of smell. While we consider our tongue the seat of taste, truth is only about 10% is dedicated to salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. If you don’t think flavor, the hedonistic sense incorporating taste, smell, texture, etc., is primarily driven by smell; just remember how tasteless everything was last time you had a cold and your nose was stuffed.
The sense of smell is unique among our senses. While all the other senses are filtered through the limbic system, the thalamus in particular, smell is mediated by olfactory neurons. These neurons resemble the same neurons that are in our brain; to a large degree one can argue that olfaction is a direct extension of our brain into our environment (and taste by extension, as well). These neurons feed into the olfactory bulb which then communicates directly with (among others) the pyriform cortex in the very brainstem region of the central nervous system (CNS). This is our animal brain; the pyriform cortex being present in amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. From perception in the environment to CNS stimulation is only a two-synapse step in humans.
This is in stark contradistinction to our other senses in which there are 5 to 7 connections necessary before a similar endpoint is reached. The sense of smell is integral to our well-being that about 2% of the human genome of 20-25,000 genes, or about 1 out of every 50 genes, is dedicated to making some kind of smell receptor.
In addition to its other direct CNS connection, olfaction also interacts with the limbic system. The limbic system is the collective name for structures in the human brain involved in emotion, motivation, and emotional association with memory. The limbic system contains several distinct structures. There is the thalamus which receives sensory information; the amygdala which focuses on threats, emotional response and directs attention; the hippocampus which deals with memories and learned behaviors, and the hypothalamus that functions in the release of hormones in response to emotion.
It is here in this nether cortex of carnal needs and neurons that food, sex, memory, and emotion collude, collide, coalesce, and conjoin. We understand this on a subliminal level. It was no coincidence that when the Joy of Sex was published, the title was a play off the previously released and hugely successful, Joy of Cooking.
The exact pathways and mechanisms by which these interrelationships are formed is not known, but there is no question as to their existence. Food is more than nutrition, it is a defining human experience. It goes beyond “the mere satisfaction of physiological needs.” And like any experience, it is best when shared.
The history of food is the history of humankind. In the sharing of food, we engage in ancient tribal ritual. We roast to boast; we cook to impress. As Robin Fox observed:
To feed someone is one of the most direct and intimate ways to convey something of ourselves to the impressee. We are never just saying, “see how we can satisfy your hunger.” We are saying more like “see how lavish and hospitable and knowledgeable we are.”
And it goes one step further. Food and sex are linked through pleasurable emotion. It is why the rigors of diet restriction and deprivation so often ultimately fail. This aspect of sensual consumption spurns the ascetic rejection of food pleasure as society itself has rejected those puritanical norms.
The romantic dinner is still one of the most recommended forms of therapy for couples in counseling. The combination of good food, good experience (good memory and emotion) lends itself naturally to good sex. These all are atavistic motivators lodged deeply within our primitive brains. And put quite simply, food like sex is an experience best shared!
Firestein, S. (2017). Big Think Interview with Stuart Firestein. Retrieved from BigThink.com: http://bigthink.com/videos/big-think-interview-with-stuart-firestein
Firestein, S. (2017). From Tongue to Brain the Neurology of Taste. Retrieved from BigThink.com: http://bigthink.com/videos/from-tongue-to-brain-the-neurology-of-taste
Firestein, S. (2017). The DIfference between Taste and Flavour. Retrieved from BigThink.com: http://bigthink.com/videos/the-difference-between-taste-and-flavor
Firestein, S. (2017). The Evolutionary Paradox of Our Sense of Smell. Retrieved from BigThink.com: http://bigthink.com/videos/the-evolutionary-paradox-of-our-sense-of-sme…
Firestein, S. (2017). The Neurology of Smell. Retrieved from BigThink.com: http://bigthink.com/videos/from-nose-to-brain-the-neurology-of-smell
Fox, R. (2016). Food and Eating: An Athropological Perspective. Retrieved from Social Issues Research Centre: http://www.sirc.org/publik/food_and_eating_8.html
The CP Journal. (2012, October 12). Breaking down the limbic system. Retrieved from The CP Journal: http://www.cp-journal.com/breaking-down-the-limbic-system-2/