New Years' Eve, 2008: Mrs. Smeagol and I didn't have any great plans for ringing in the new year, so we settled on heading down to the local Hollywood Video (never forget) for a couple of DVDs. On the way home, we swung by the nearby Burger King for a couple of burgers to go with our movies, since we didn't feel like cooking and it was the only darned thing open in the area besides the video store.
I spent the next 24 hours in blinding agony, as the poisoned meat I had scarfed down burned through every molecule of my body. I barfed, I passed out, I barfed again, and then I repeated the entire process about seventeen more times.
Somewhere along the way, my body decided that it flat-out was done with Burger King. Like, forever. The only thing was, I didn't know that. Your body doesn't speak in English to you.
Fast forward a few years later, sometime in 2010. I was rushed for time, but I needed a bite to eat, so I stopped into a Burger King on the road and purchased a burger. As soon as I opened the bag, my body went into full shutdown mode. The aroma of Burger King made me physically ill, to the point that, even though I didn't even eat the burger, I had to be sick in a nearby bush. Huh, I thought, that sure was weird. Surely my body wasn't bringing up the memory of my two-years-prior food poisoning to the extent that it actually made itself relive it.
Fast forward one final time to last night (2014, for readers from the future or time travelers, or people outside of the linear flow of time itself). I had to rush home, as my infant was running a fever of a hundred and one, and when I got home, Mrs. Smeagol informed me that we were all out of baby Tylenol, so she went out to the local Walgreens to pick some up. While she was out, she swung by - you guessed it - Burger King to grab a couple of dinners for us both.
She got me a chicken sandwich, and I thought to myself, well, it's chicken, not beef, so maybe it won't be that bad.
It was exactly as bad as I feared it would be. My body has built up some sort of psychosomatic wall around the smell of Burger King food. Curious, I turned to the Internet for answers.
Dr. David Solot, of Walden University, has this to say on the subject of food aversions:
Here's how taste aversion works: You and your buddies go out for a few drinks. You're young and wild and love drinks with the strong coconut flavor of Malibu Rum. Things get a little out of hand, and you spend part of the night praying to the porcelain god. You recover, and next weekend go out for drinks again. The bartender passes you your favorite drink, but this time the smell of coconut immediately makes you want to vomit. You loved Malibu for years, but now, the very thought of it makes you sick.
What you're experiencing is your brain protecting you from being poisoned. When we were primitive creatures, we weren't sure what was safe to eat so we tested things out.
If you survived the experience, your brain had to make sure that you never ever ate that same thing again. So, if you ate something that made you feel ill, your brain decided "better safe than sorry," and conditioned you to feel sick anytime you saw, smelled or even thought about that same food.
The next time you went foraging for food and came across a berry that made you feel sick in the past, you would get hit with an overwhelming feeling of nausea and go eat something else. The people who were good at developing taste aversions lived and had children. The ones who were bad at it - well - they largely got poisoned and died. So over the centuries, our ability to form taste aversions got stronger and stronger.
The reason your night of drinking resulted in a hatred of Malibu is due to this same survival mechanism. When you felt nauseated at 3am, your brain sensed that you had been poisoned. Your brain didn't know for sure what caused it, but it did remember a really strong coconut flavor from earlier that night.
To protect you, your brain decided "better safe than sorry," and assumed that the coconut flavor was to blame. To make sure you don't poison yourself in the future, it set up a conditioned response so that the smell or taste of coconut will make you feel sick.
That's how taste aversions work properly - you no longer want to eat the thing that made you sick. But it can get more complicated than that.
You may find that you suddenly hate coconut shavings on ice cream. A year later, you may push away a plate of coconut-battered shrimp at a restaurant, and have no idea why you find it so repulsive. Taste aversions are just that powerful, and they can last for years after only one bad experience.
To make matters more confusing, sometimes aversions form for the wrong food. Imagine that on the way to work one morning you stop off for your traditional cup of coffee. Later that day, your coworkers all go out for Indian food. You've never had Indian food before, but you're up for something new. You have a delicious meal and try lots of new items. But around 3pm, you start feeling queasy. It gets worse and worse, and by the evening you're sick to your stomach and not able to hold anything down.
Your brain senses that you've been poisoned. Once again, it isn't sure what did it, but it does remember a lot of strong spices and flavors that it never tasted before. To make sure you don't poison yourself in the future, your brain decides "better safe than sorry," and conditions you to feel sick any time you smell, taste or even think about Indian food.
The problem is, it turns out that there was nothing wrong with the Indian food - it was the creamer in your morning coffee that had gone bad! "No way," says your brain, "we've had that coffee every day for a year. We know that it's safe. It had to be that weird new food we ate."
Suddenly you have a strong aversion to Indian food, even though it tasted good and there was nothing wrong with it. To make matters worse, you'll probably never know your hatred of Indian food is irrational, because you don't know that the real cause of your illness was your coffee. You'll likely think that Indian food makes you sick and avoid it in the future.
This kind of thing is happening to us all the time, and we're mostly oblivious to it. Have you ever had a really bad cold, and decided to make yourself feel better by eating your favorite food? You might find a few days later that you've stopped liking your favorite food. That's taste aversion in action! Your brain assumes that the illness was caused by the food, and is teaching you to not like that food any more.
This effect is so strong that people undergoing chemotherapy (which can cause severe nausea) are cautioned to avoid their favorite foods. You might think you're comforting yourself, but what you're really doing is teaching your brain that "favorite food = feeling sick."
It's a fascinating study, and you can read the rest here if you're so inclined. So what it ultimately boils down to is, even if you've had no indications that a food might be tainted, or even if you know for a certainty that a food is perfectly fine, your body's biological memory of what happened to you the last time you ate it can be immediately triggered into full-tilt nausea and vomiting from just the smell of that food again.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go be sick for the third time today.