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On memories and apples

I think of apples now, not because I am surrounded by many visible signs of it, and not because of many childhood memories of it, but because I know the apple season is around the corner, and because I have a few memories of how appealing the fruit can be.




I think of apples and the thoughts present themselves as snapshots or fleeting images: warm golden crust encasing slices of baked, crunchy, glistening apples, overlaid against each other; streaks of caramelization on the edges of the fruit; sweet, tart, caramel, buttery smells and flavor; soft, yellowish-orange lighting; forks and pastry crumbs; people and conversation.




Here is a method to make an apple tart:

Tart dough (pâte brisée) molded into a tart ring





Core and peel the apples. Cut some of them into slices and store in a bowl with some lemon juice. Cut the remaining apples into medium size pieces and cook them covered until soft. Add sugar and lemon juice to taste, and some butter before making a purée. Blind bake the tart shell and then add a thin layer of the apple sauce to it. Spread the sauce with a spatula, and then arrange the cut apple slices in an overlapping pattern. Dot the pastry with butter, sprinkle with some sugar and bake in a 375˚F oven until the crust and apple turn shades of golden brown.



If I think harder, details emerge of the apple tart or people with whom I ate it, but not the two together. The images I recall seem distilled from many apple tart memories, not just one. As I think harder still, I begin to recall other memories of apples, non-tart memories, including memories that distantly remind me of having had apples as a child, but nothing much else. It seems that the ability to vividly recall a food memory is independent of the time since it was formed because the apple memories I remember in detail are relatively recent, unlike, for instance, a similar memory of mangoes that goes far back into childhood.

So, what then determines vivid recall of food memories?

In a study1, subjects were first presented with a series of smells, followed by a series of objects. As the objects were being presented, the subjects were asked to make a story that connected the object to one of the smells they were exposed to earlier. Later, the subjects were placed in a brain scanner that monitors blood flow to various parts of the brain - a brain area that is active receives increased blood flow which can be monitored by the scanner. The subjects were now presented with the objects they had seen earlier. As the objects were being recognized, not surprisingly, the scanner detected blood flow to the region of the brain responsible for object recognition, but interestingly, it also detected blood flow to the region of the brain responsible for smell (despite the absence of any smell being presented to the subjects in the scanner).

Memories may be registered in the brain as associations, a series of associations distributed across the various sensory and motor regions in the brain, including the regions for emotion.

However, how the brain might encode memory does not necessarily answer why certain food memories can be recalled in vivid detail while many others cannot.

Maybe the strength of the associations determines how vividly memory is recalled. But what determines the strength?

Does involuntary recall of food memory, one where a memory forms effortlessly and rises to the surface as the first thing that comes to mind, mean anything different from those that are voluntary and take more effort to form?

For me, apples are tightly associated with the feel of late evenings, orange lights, crumbly pastry, and people.



1. Remembrance of odors past. Human olfactory cortex in cross-modal recognition memory. Gottfried JA et al. Neuron Volume 42, Issue 4, p687–695, 27 May 2004

18 thoughts on “On memories and apples

  1. Bala

    Facebook comment from reader, Ms. Aruna Vedula:

    A very thought provoking blog. I can still remember the smell of filter coffee in my ancestral home in Vizainagaram. Every time I would smell it elsewhere I would immediately get the image of my ancestral home in my mind. It was like the aroma and visual picture were connected to each other.

    1. Bala

      Thank you. It seems, based on what is known in the field about actual nerve connections in the brain, that associations with smell or those triggered by smell are very strong.

  2. ravi sankar

    very thought provoking. Personally I notice often that when i see food it brings back memories. I have not been noticing how much of the memory also relates to smell but i will try to note it when it triggers a strong association and let you know. Regards Ravi

  3. nirmala

    Reading your blog got me thinking. I now understand why certain smell of food reminds me of my mother. There is a distinct connection between food and personality.I come across this emotion often. I will now be able to connect why certain smell and flavour bring joy. Thanks for throwing more light on the wonderful mechanism of the brain.

    Mouth watering photographs. Apple crumble is my favourite. The very thought of warm apple crumble with vanilla ice cream brings a smile to my face. Its the brain at work!

    1. Bala

      Thank you. It is very nice to hear of your food memory associations with your mother, and with positive emotion. I wish you have a lot of apple crumble and vanilla ice cream.

  4. Bala

    Facebook comment from reader, Mr. José Luiz Borges:

    Dear Bala,
    Nice post on a theme that I like very much! Cross modal sensory integration is fascinating. On the other side, bimodal neurons for taste and smell on the orbitofrontal cortex can trick us in wine tasting...

    1. Bala

      Dear José, Thank you. I can imagine how wine tasting, in particular, can be tricky with regards to bimodal neurons and the OFC. I'm thinking German Riesling for instance and flavors of ripe fruit that seemingly have nothing to do with grapes. It would be lovely to hear your thoughts on this topic sometime over some wine or not.

      1. José Luiz Borges

        Dears Sarah and Bala, I've became very interested upon this theme When I read the article by Gil Morrot , Fréderic Brochet ( who was our teacher at HEG and Denis Dubourdieu (who died three months ago):

        The Color of Odors
        Brain and Language 79, 309–320 (2001)
        doi:10.1006/brln.2001.2493, available online at on.
        It is a fascinating, well designed experiment that have demonstrated the delusion caused by the colour of wine when describing its aroma. I think it's a nice article even for those who are not used to read scientific articles..

        1. Bala

          Dear José, Yes, this article is very interesting. I remember Frédéric Brochet talking about it in Reims. I actually referenced this article the last two years in the gastronomy course I teach. It is particularly striking that several wine experts were misled by the white wine colored red. In one way, it underscores the strong influence of vision on flavor perception, and on the other, it reveals the truth/sincerity (or lack thereof) of some wine tasters in their analysis. Is there a bias due to color of the wine? Sure. But, is it so strong that it would completely mislead a sincere wine expert? I probably don't think so? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts. Hugs.

          1. José Luiz Borges

            Dear Bala, color and odor association is very strong at psycological level (Dematté ML et al. Cross-Modal Associations Between Odors and Colors. Chem. Senses 31: 531–538, 2006), with a neural mechanism demonstrated by Osterbauer RA et al. (Color of Scents: Chromatic Stimuli Modulate Odor Responses in the Human Brain. J Neurophysiol 93: 3434 –3441, 2005).
            Sometimes we offer, just for training, white and red wines at the same temperature, in black dark glasses to our students of sommelerie. The rate of error is very high as in the experiment of Morrot. I believe the clue to better categorization and description of wines is trigeminal sensations in mouth felling. Astrigency of tanins can help us to identify red wines and then describe their aromatic features.

          2. Bala

            Dear José,
            Thank you for your prompt response and for the two papers you reference. I agree there is a strong association between color and odor (and, therefore flavor) perception. This seems to have been known for a long time: a 1972 study simply tested the odor response of an odorless solution that was colored or not, and the subjects tended to rate the colored solution as having an odor (Engen T. The effect of expectation on judgements of odor. Acta Psychologica 36 (1972):450-456).

            The neural mechanisms underlying the color-odor association also seem complex: A 2005 study, conducted an experiment similar to the one referenced above except they added a smell stimulant to the odorless solution, and the subjects, by sniffing alone (orthonasal) tended to rate the colored solution as having a stronger odor. Interestingly, when the subjects were asked to sip the solution and then rate retronasal smell, the colored solutions were rated as less intense! (Koza BJA et. al. Color enhances orthonasal olfactory intensity and reduces retronasal olfactory intensity. Chemical Senses 30 (2005):643-649).

            My question about biological bias versus how hard/sincerely a person tries to identify the flavor profile of wine applies mostly to wine experts. I wonder if there is a tendency, perhaps unrelated to the psychological bias we discuss, where people describe wines in ways they probably really don't experience, also influenced by social setting?

            Your method of using dark wine glasses during training and the reasoning about astringency of tannins seem appropriate, and I would imagine effective.

            It would be quite interesting to taste some wines with you and discuss this topic further. The Riesling example I mentioned earlier is also something that interests me from a neuroscience standpoint.


  5. Bala

    Facebook comment from reader, Ms. Sarah Copeland:

    Bala, a very interesting topic. I would love to listen to you and Jose talk about the neuroscience of it all though you would soon lose me!

    1. Bala

      Sarah, It would be lovely to chat about this topic with you and Jose. We were discussing this topic in class recently and the students responded well using their own examples - a lot of these topics, leaving the technicality aside, are intuitive. Everyone's examples seem to make the topic alive.

  6. Bala

    Facebook comment from reader, Ms. Mireille Israel:

    This night it''s the new year -5777-for all jewish people all over the world ..the use for the Ashkenasis is to soak peaces of apple into a honey hope that the new year will be so sweet that the apple with honey! The Sephardis do the same but with granadas..

    With my best jewish regards!

    1. Bala

      Dear Mireille,
      Thank you for sharing this story about the Jewish New Year. Honey-soaked apples symbolic of New Year wishes sounds lovely. Shanah Tova!

  7. Hal Wolin

    Excuse me?!

    Who is this talented blogger Balakrishnan Selvakumar, and why--for goodness sakes--doesn't he have his own program on CNN or The Food Network? I mean--really, why would anyone want to tune in to Anthony Bourdain or Alton Brown or--oy--Ina Garten--when you can partake of the existential gastronomic wisdom of the charming blogmeister of That his accompanying photographs are equally delicious in their exquisite restraint is the proverbial lagniappe.

    Namaste y'all!

    PS (kinda/sorta) More recipes from would make this a better world.

    1. Bala


      Thank you so very much for your very kind and generous words. Coming especially from someone with your experience in gastronomy encourages me that much more. Your feedback about more recipes is well-taken.


I look forward to reading your thoughts...

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