For the first time, we were able to measure affective brain responses using EEG, whilst participants were cooking a meal. Affective brain responses and self-reports did not correlate, suggesting they tap into different processes. The next step is to extend these findings to more subtle stimuli.
Food is emotion
Surprisingly little is known about emotions experienced during preparation and eating of products/dishes. Our objective was to develop an implicit method that quantifies emotional experiences in response to food products through-out the cooking process and consumption. Such measures are essential to successfully deliver positive emotions to our products and brands and make them desirable and enjoyable throughout the whole experience.
Using neuroscience to measure emotions
Verbalizing emotions can be difficult for consumers; just asking or thinking about how you feel will already change what you feel or experience at that specific moment. Brain signals generated during cooking and tasting food could potentially provide better information about a person’s emotional state, without requiring the person to verbalize this. Recent research showed that brain signals (so-called EEG frontal alpha asymmetry) provide information about approach and avoidance motivations: stronger left frontal brain activation was associated with approach and right frontal brain activation with avoidance.
We examined emotions ‘on the go’ in a real-life cooking con-text by using implicit neurophysiological measures such as EEG, heart rate variability and skin conductance. We asked 41 participants to prepare two different types of stir-fry dishes as they followed a scripted procedure. The dishes were expected to evoke ‘approach’ (i.e. pleasure) for a pleasant dish with chicken and ‘avoidance’ (i.e. disgust) for an unpleasant dish with mealworms.
“These results are unique in that we have shown for the first time that it is possible to measure brain responses during a real-life cooking process.”
We measured emotions during cooking. The brain signals (EEG frontal asymmetry) were consistent with ‘approach’ motivation for chicken and ‘avoidance’ for mealworms. The most pronounced differences were 20s after the instructions ‘Remove lid’ and ‘Take a bite’. Interestingly, we were able to pick up these effects with two out of the 24 electrodes, suggesting we can simplify the set-up in the future. As expected, skin conductance showed that cooking with mealworms was associated with high arousal relative to chicken. Heart rate variability data was difficult to interpret. Participants also self-reported higher arousal and lower valence levels for meal-worms than for chicken. Importantly, we did not find correlations between self-reported and brain responses. Perhaps they reflect different underlying processes (e.g. a mixture of disgust and interest when confronted with mealworms in self-reported scores, and approach versus avoidance motivation in EEG frontal alpha asymmetry). Further investigation is required to further map out these differences in order to better take advantage of them.
Measuring without asking
These results are unique in that we have shown for the first time that it is possible to measure brain responses during a real-life cooking process. This is an important step towards the development of valid implicit measurement of emotions during preparation and consumption of foods in real-life large-scale contexts. In a next step, we will extend the research to more subtle food stimuli to deliver new insights on subtle emotions, and ultimately to allowing us to create foods and cooking experiences that we know consumers like and find emotionally rewarding.
What’s so amazing?
Many agencies claim to “dive into people’s unconscious processes” using neuroscientific techniques. So, what’s so amazing about this study? The real challenge in this study was not to measure approach-avoidance responses using brain signals. What’s really impressive is that the responses were recorded when the participants were freely moving about. Any movement of the body immediately creates all kinds of brain signals, which makes it difficult to filter out the approach/motivation signals from all the other signals being recorded by the EEG. By specifying a step-by-step script for the cooks and using state-of-the-art data-analyses techniques, we were able to filter out the noise of the movements as respondents were preparing the dishes.
Project The Quantified Cook
This project was supported by a grant from the Dutch Top Consortium for Knowledge and Innovation (TKI) Agri & Food, TNO, Unilever R&D Vlaardingen and Eaglescience Software (TKI-AF-14277).
Brouwer A-M, Hogervorst MA, Grootjen M, Van Erp JBF & Zandstra EH. Neurophysiological responses during cooking food associated with different emotions. Food Quality & Preference (Submitted).