How do taste buds change?

By Rosie Arnold, Class of 2017

(Cat food image credit Roger H. Goun via Flickr)


When I was a kid I accidentally ate cat food.

Not the little crunchy kibbles, which, admittedly, sometimes smell kind of tasty. I’m talking about the cold, slimy, wet gruel, that’s so sludgy you need a spoon to extract it from the can.

I say it was an accident, because in one hand I had a spoonful of peanut butter that I was eating out of the jar (all class) and in the other, I used a spoon to scoop out the cat food. I forgot which hand held which spoon, and in a crucial moment, I was distracted and put the wrong spoon in my mouth. Expecting crunchy, peanut buttery goodness, I got a mouthful of only what I can describe as death and decay in a foul fluid/solid form.

I honestly think I blacked out from the shock and horror, but recalling the memory from over 15 years ago still makes me gag and shiver. Until recently, the smell of tinned fish made my eyes water and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in repulsion.

I already feel queasy – image by Dario Lo Presti via Flickr


I always wondered, after all of these years, why does that one memory still haunt me?


Memory and learning both start as signals carried through the cells in the brain, called neurons. Think of neurons like roads, and the cars travelling along them carry signals and information around the brain. At every intersection between neurons is what we call a synapse.

Now here’s where it gets interesting: synapses can actually rearrange themselves to favour pathways that get a lot of use. It’s like the council realising that one particular road gets a lot of traffic, and either widening the road, or making the traffic lights direct traffic along that particular route. This is called neuroplasticity, and is the reason things can become “second nature” – the synapses have rewired to make brain signalling more streamline and effortless.

Neuroplasticity is the reason we can learn to juggle, why blind people may have better hearing, and why human brains can lose up to 1 cell per second and still function – the brain rewires itself!

“Neurons that fire together, wire together” 

In my fishy case, what must have happened is that I lived the traumatic memory over and over so many times, I’d unwittingly strengthened the “fish = repulsion” pathway in my brain. The neurons that screamed “GET THIS OUT OF MY MOUTH” when I accidentally ate the cat food was associated with all things fishy: the smell of fish, the sight of fish and the thought of fish.

Snapper out of it

I’d accepted this as a lifelong disposition, until in the last few years I started getting really dry skin. One of the best ways to fix that is to increase the amount of healthy fats in my diet. And one of the best sources of these fats are, you guessed it, fish. Obviously, fish oil capsules were a no-go (fishy burps? I’ll pass), so I had to think of ways to sneakily overcome my aversion.

Fish oil capsules can leave you with fishy breath – no thanks! – image by Fitness Twistme via Flickr


Armed with trusty lemon juice and copious amounts of beetroot, I managed to disguise some pan-seared salmon in a salad. As the months went by, I learned to eat the salmon from the pan, and then one day, I cracked open a tin of salmon, and miraculously, I didn’t keel over retching.

This was neuroplasticity in the making – instead of associating fish with that traumatic episode, my brain had rewired to think of fish as healthy and nourishing.

Tastebuds (and brains) change

This is also why as a kid you might have sipped wine, been disgusted by it and sworn you could never find pleasure in such vile fluid. But after trying it again here and there, usually at festive events like parties or barbecues, you eventually started to like the taste. That’s the “happy-event” neurons firing with the “taste of wine” neurons, and slowly building a happy train of thought.

Whilst I don’t think I’ll ever want to train myself into liking anchovies, I wonder what else my brain has secret vendettas against, and if I could train myself out of them.

So what bad habit or association are you going to train yourself out of? Or have you done so already?