|Photo: Yohan John|
This question originally appeared on Quora: From a scientific point of view, how are our tastes created? Answer by Yohan John, PhD in cognitive & neural systems, MSc in physics.
Typically we explain taste—in food, music, movies, art— in terms of culture, upbringing, and sheer chance. In recent years there have been several attempts to explain taste from biological perspectives: either neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. In my opinion, these types of explanations are vague enough to always sound true, but they rarely contain enough detail to account for the specific tastes of individuals or groups. Still, there’s much food for thought in these scientific proto-theories of taste and aesthetics.
Let’s look at the evolutionary approach first. An evolutionary explanation of taste assumes that human preferences arise from natural selection. We like salt and sugar and fat, according to this logic, because it was beneficial for our ancestors to seek out foods with these tastes. We like landscape scenes involving greenery and water bodies because such landscapes were promising environments for our wandering ancestors. This line of thinking is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go that far. After all, there are plenty of people who don’t much care for deep-fried salty-sweet foods. And many people who take art seriously quickly tire of clichéd landscape paintings.
Evolutionary psychology can provide broad explanations for why humans as a species tend to like certain things more than others, but it really provides us with no map for navigating differences in taste between individuals and groups. (These obvious, glaring limitations of evolutionary psychology have not prevented the emergence of a cottage industry of pop science books that explain everything humans do as consequences of the incidents and accidents that befell our progenitor apes on the savannas of Africa.)
Explanations involving the neural and cognitive sciences get closer to what we are really after—an explanation of differences in taste—but not by much. Neuroscientific explanations are essentially half way between cultural theories and evolutionary theories. We like things because the “pleasure centers” in our brains “light up” when we encounter them. And the pleasure centers are shaped by experience (on the time scale of a person’s life), and by natural selection (on the time scale of the species). Whatever we inherit because of natural selection is presumably common to all humans, so differences in taste must be traced to differences in experience, which become manifest in the brain as differences in neural connectivity and activity. If your parents played the Beatles for you as a child, and conveyed their pleasure to you, then associative learning might gradually modify the synapses in your brain that link sound patterns with emotional reactions, so that playing “Hey Jude” now triggers a cascade of neural events that generate the subjective feeling of enjoyment.
But there is so much more to the story of enjoyment. Not everyone likes their parents’ music. In English-speaking countries there is a decades-old stereotype of the teenager who seeks out music to piss off his or her parents. And many of us have a friend who insists on listening to music that no one else seems to have heard of. What is the neural basis of this fascinating phenomenon?