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Food flavors can help us travel back in time

A team of researchers led by Lancaster University has recently explored the feasibility of 3D printed flavor-based cues for the recall of memories in old age. The experts found that older people exposed to food flavors from their youth were able to “time travel” back to the past and experience an enhanced memory of the original event.

The scientists enrolled 12 older adults and collected 72 memories (half involving food and half not), each recalled twice. The memories ranged from eating grilled mackerel at a golden wedding to eating strawberries in a hospital after giving birth. In the case of food memories, the researchers worked with the participants to create bespoke flavor-based cues for each of them. These 3D printed cues are small, gel-like, edible balls that model the original food, are easier to swallow, and have more intense flavors. 

All the study participants were able to provide highly rich sensory accounts when prompted by flavor-based cues, with many of the details not being present in the earlier free recall. For instance, one participant initially described a Green Thai curry dinner in Cambodia as follows: “We went into the kitchen area, which was very basic and preparing all sorts of types of green vegetables, which I have no idea what they were, sitting on the floor. And then we would help cook them, stir fry them, and then we would help dish them up…” 

However, after being exposed to the 3D flavor-based cue of this curry, the participant provided a more detailed memory of “the chopping noises of cutting up the vegetables, me sitting on the floor cross legged with my friend, chatting together. And then when we went out, put stuff on the tables, the rest of the group coming out and we sit on long tables outside, the front of the school, so it’s outside in the open air to eat.” 

“Our outcomes indicated that personalized 3D printed flavor-based cues have rich sensorial and emotional qualities supporting strong recollective retrieval, especially when they distinctively match the food in the original experience, and prompt emotionally positive self-defining memories,” explained study co-author Corina Sas, an expert in Human-Computer Interaction and Digital Health at Lancaster.

According to the researchers, these findings could be useful in the treatment of dementia, since many participants talked about the importance of food memories based on their experiences of caring for their loved ones. By creating rich, multi-sensory memory aids, scientists and medical professionals may help people with dementia effectively trigger recollections of past events.

The study is published in the journal Human-Computer Interaction

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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