It’s that beautiful time of year again! The leaves start to change colour, the air feels a little crisper, the temperature is dropping, the earlier sunsets, those new leather boots and big cozy jumpers and – of course – pumpkin spice fever starts running rampant!
It is that time of year where your social media news feeds get swamped with images and status updates about ‘fall’s official beverage’, it becomes the subject of conversation throughout coffee breaks and it’s sweet aroma lingers outside the coffee shops as you walk past!
But why do we crave it so much?
What does it do to our bodies to make us go back and back and back again for that most basic of beverages?
In truth, it is probably the marketing that plays a massive role in us humans not being able to resist, but it’s based on some truly incredibly interesting neuroscience. So, in today’s post I wanted to share the science behind why we love fall & the cravings for your next Pumpkin Spice Latte.
What is in the Pumpkin Spice Latte that makes us go back for more every time?
So, I thought I good place to start was to see if the ingredients of the Pumpkin Spice Latte contributed to our mild fall addiction – and when I tell you some of the ingredients it will become clear that it does!
Caffeine, fat, sugar, spices such as clove, nutmeg and cinnamon and salt are all found in our Pumpkin Spice Latte and all contribute to our wanting for more. All of these are making our brain happy!
Naturally, it has caffeine in it, which is kind of habit forming. But the most important element that messes with our brains is the sugar! Pumpkin Spice Lattes are superbly sweet and our brains are hardwired to respond to the taste of sugar and other carbohydrates. In neuroscience terms, food is something that is called a ‘natural reward’. In order for us to survive as a species, things like eating, sex and nurturing others must be pleasurable to the brain so that these behaviours are reinforced and repeated. With this goal in mind, evolution has resulted in the mesolimbic pathway – or the brain sytem that deciphers these natural rewards!
When we do something we enjoy, such as eat something sweet and delicious, a bundle of neurons called the ventral tegmental area uses the neurotransmitter dopamine to signal to the nucleus accumbens region of the brain. Think of dopamine as your postman taking your message or letter from the first destination – the post office – to its final destination – your letter box! The connection between the nucleus accumbens and our prefrontal cortex dictates our motor movement – so it decides whether we are going to take a bite of that delicious chocolate cake or not! Our prefrontal cortex starts making the situation a little worse by activating hormones that tell our body ‘Hey! This cake is really good, and I’m going to remember that for the future!’ It is this connection in our brains that is making us desire that Pumpkin Spice Latte each year!
Not all foods are as rewarding of course! Most of us prefer sweets over sour and botter flavours. This is because out mesolimbic pathway has reinforced that sweet things provide a healthy source of carbohydrates. To our ancestors, sour flavours meant ‘not ripe yet’ whereas bitter meant ‘Help! Poison!’. However, I’m obviously not talking about scavenging for fruits. Our modern diets have taken on a life of their own and all these added sugars in our favourite treats have taken advantage of this mesolimbic pathway and made us hooked! In many ways, these sugars have hijacked our brain’s reward pathway and make users dependent on them in similar ways to drugs like nicotine, cocaine and heroine too! Like these drugs, sugar spikes a release of dopamine – or our messenger – in our brains. Over long term, regular sugar consumption can actually change the gene expression and the availability of dopamine receptors in our brain. In fact it increases the excitatory receptor and decreases the inhibitory receptor, so our brains can’t switch the signal off as well. To add insult to injury, regular sugar consumption stops the pump that removes dopamine from the synapse and back into the neuron. This simply results in prolonged dopamine signal and a greater excitation of the brain’s reward system because we can’t switch off the signal. Think of it like a train track that splits into two! On the current path the train is going to turn right and head to a destination where you are going to crave more and more sugar! But if you switch the lever, the train will turn left where your dopamine signal gets switched off. That lever switching between the two is our pump that isn’t removing the dopamine and resetting the neurons in our brains. Regular sugar consumption has made that lever much more difficult to shift and allow the train to turn left and reset! Instead the train will continue to turn right and dopamine will continue to signal! Our brains become tolerant to the sugar, and more is needed then to attain the same ‘sugar high’.
But it’s not just the sugar and the caffeine, the salt contributes to our desire for these autumnal beverages too. A study from Duke University in 2011 found that salt alone triggers the same nerve cells in the hypothalamus region of a rat brain as elicit drugs like cocaine or heroine. Much like the sugar, it floods our brains with an intense dopamine rush that hits our system immediately – even before our bodies can absorb it!
Humans are ‘hard-wired’ to be insatiable wanting machines! So, the connections in our brain that remember how good that piece of chocolate cake you had last night was, or how deliciously satisfying that Pumpkin Spice Latte you had last fall was, are the reason you crave it so much again!
Why is the Pumpkin Spice Latte & Fall so comforting?
The dead leaves falling to the ground and the grey chill of the impending winter months don’t exactly inspire positive feelings towards Autumn, But when we attach a meaning to the season, like the start of a new school year, that new fabulous coat you’ve bought, holidays like Halloween and Bonfire Night or perhaps even your favourite fall beverage the Pumpkin Spice Latte – it becomes significantly more enjoyable!
Injecting meaning to something – in this case, a season – stimulates feelings of nostalgia. And nostalgia has been shown to boost our moods and make us feel more socially connected. It gives us that warm and fuzzy feeling inside!
Our brains love predictable novelty. This might sound like an oxymoron, but it is true! Our brains love fall because it gives us the change we crave wrapped up in the safety of something we knew was coming – the light changes, the shorter days, the falling leaves – which all add up to the predictable novelties that our brain really really loves! We are hard-wired to pay attention to new things – another evolutionary reason that helps us stay alive as a species. When our brain encounters something new, it triggers the fear centres in our brain called amygdalae which cause anxiety and stress – the sort of feeling you get when someone unexpectedly jumps out from behind a corner! But in the right proportion, stress can be fun. That’s why we ride rollercoasters and go sky diving for example. But if you can predict the change that is likely to occur, your prefrontal cortex or the decision making part of your brain can override the anxiety and leave the joy! And this is what fall gives us! There is a vast amount of change that happens during this season, but we all basically know whats coming!
But your brain associates fall with good things! Not only do we like change, but we like the change associated with autumn. You see orange levels and think about pumpkins. Pumpkins get you thinking about Halloween. Halloween gets you thinking about that amazing Halloween party you went to. And now you feel really good! You LOVE fall!
The neuroscience behind this love is the trifecta of pleasurable neurotransmitters – you brain sends signals through neurons with dopamine – linked with pleasure, serotonin – linked with happiness, and norepinephrine – linked to alertness! When all three signals are going off at once in our brains, we are in a heightened state of awareness in a good way! That combination is what makes this time of year sparkle! It’s literally holiday magic! And because you feel so great, your brain tries to associate that magic with something it can remember for the next time.
So, what does your brain associate with the happy memories of previous fall?
We all automatically associate sensory experiences to happy memories! Whether that is the smell of baking cookies that reminds you of your grandmother, or the sound of cheers from the sports field behind your house reminding you of summertime – this is what we do with fall too – but our chemical senses are going to take the cake, hence why foods have a special place in our hearts and brains!
The smell of those cookies baking immediately might take you back to your grandmother’s kitchen! It’s a poignantly visceral memory! You might even be able to almost feel the heat from the oven and the taste of the cocoa! No matter what the smell, certain foods and aromas resonate deeply, such as the Pumpkin Spice Latte at this time of year! And this has a great deal to do with how our brain is wired again!
All of our senses send signals to the brain through the thalamus, which relays signals to the cerebral cortex. Well, all but one! Our sense of smell has its own highway directly to the limbic system in your brain – the centre of our emotional memory! Olfaction – or smelling things – hits you literally straight in your emotions! And thats why it is so powerful, especially since 80% of taste is smell – that is why food stands out so much in autumn as we don’t have innate odour responses! When we add an odour to sugar, our brains learnt at a subconscious level to associate that flavour with all the wonderful things going on around them, and how that made you feel good!
Whether it is the smell of burning leaves or the crispness of the winter air, fall is the ultimate season for the brain. It’s a veritable cornucopia of neuro stimuli. Whose brain needs a rollercoaster when there are Pumpkin Spice Lattes eh?
Fall is also a time for physical comfort. Who hasn’t put on a cozy sweater and felt the stress of the day met away? Fall is that perfect season when the outside temperature is often physiologically appropriate for our bodies. We can spend a little less energy cooling our bodies and the thermostat regulating part of our brain – the hypothalamus – has a little less work to do. As it gets colder we have to crank up the internal heater, your brain wants the easiest possible way to take care of the issue. Putting on a jumper makes your body have less work to do to keep warm, which puts your brain at ease! That same physical comfort comes when you wrap your chilled hands around a warm beverage – a Pumpkin Spice Latte for example!
Just like hot cocoa, fuzzy sweaters and apple picking, the pumpkin spice flavour has become synonymous with autumn. And we have how our brains are wired to thank for that! That coupled with that the Pumpkin Spice Latte is only around for a limited time makes us want it even more! Of course this amazing neuroscience isn’t solely because of a Pumpkin Spice craze. The same works for why you can’t turn down that chocolate bar – like me – or why the smell of mulled wine and brandy makes you think of Christmas. Our brains are incredible things but hopefully you’ve learnt a little bit more about how you brain works with this post.
So, why do we fall for the Pumpkin Spice Latte every year?
Well, these sugar meets spice beverages become so hard to resist, because of a perfectly sensible scientific explanation: the smell and taste triggers a nostalgic emotional response in our brains.
Basically the witches of the hot beverage world using magic and pumpkin-y goodness to mess with our brains!
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