As summer days give way to crisp fall evenings, coldbrew cravings fade, replaced by pumpkin spice… everything. But why are we so drawn by the flavors of fall? Is it just nostalgia that makes us appreciate cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger a little more as the leaves turn? We consulted Dr. Google, Dilworth Coffee’s Department of Neurophysiology, to find out why.
We’ve all experienced the strong connection between smells, emotions, and memories. Neuroscientists have noticed this too, and have long studied this link. Many believe that brain geography plays a big part – the olfactory bulb is located right next door to the emotion-center amygdala and memory-forming hippocampus. That could be why smells tied to good memories make us so happy.
Autumnal aromas are very popular examples of this for a few reasons. Many folks grow weary of summer’s heat and celebrate every hint that cooler days lie ahead. These smells also let us know that the holiday season is approaching. This “why” is useful beyond pumpkin spice too. Thinking about other good-vibes aromas like brown sugar, cinnamon, gingerbread, and maple can help us create fun autumn alternatives. This phenomenon is not limited to fall either. We can find examples year-round, from the first wisp of spring breeze to the smell of summer’s first ripe peach. So, when another favorite time of year approaches, try welcoming it by enjoying those seasonal aromas a little earlier.
If we were making scented candles understanding aroma would be good enough. The pumpkin spice flavor puzzle, though, has one more important piece to consider.
Our perception of flavor is the combined experience of the senses of taste and smell. When we sip a beverage, some aroma molecules sneak around the back of our throats and up into our nasal cavity (a process called retronasal olfaction). To experience this, here’s a simple experiment: if you’re eating or drinking something while reading this, try plugging your nose before taking your next bite or sip to see what happens. The flavors that are missing are aromas, the ones which remain are tastes.
So, what’s really happening when you sip that pumpkin spice latte? Those devious little allspice-aroma molecules use retronasal olfaction to conjure memories of Grandma’s pie to make your amygdala happy. Then you smile, and look forward to enjoying another one tomorrow.
No matter how you look at it, it’s a great time to sip a pumpkin spice latte and enjoy all the flavors of fall.