Author Archives: Nicole Asante

Twenty-one and trying to keep it sober

To an American, turning twenty-one means more than adding a hyphen to your age. On June 8th, I got a call from my parents back in Rhode Island not only to wish me a happy birthday but also to pass along several warnings about what everyone associates with a twenty-first birthday: alcohol.  “We trust you,” they said, “but make good decisions!”

Cake 2IMG_1870


My birthday week, however, played out nothing like my parent’s expected.  I received three fantastic birthday cakes and dozens of birthday wishes, visited the beautiful town of Blois, France and the Versailles castle, and witnessed an unbelievable circus performance at Le Folies Bergere. Alcohol didn’t interest me, and for a moment I thought my parent’s advice about alcohol didn’t apply to me this trip.  After our group took an excursion to Le Musee Gourmand du Chocolat, a chocolate museum complete with a chocolate workshop and demonstration, I realized that I should have applied my parent’s advice  applied to my chocolate eating habits, not my first glass of wine. If I eat more than a few Hershey’s Kisses worth of chocolate I experience symptoms like coughing, temporary tightening of the throat, migraines, dizziness, and light-headedness.  Over the years, I learned to live with this food sensitivity, and yet, finding myself surrounded by chocolate during the excursion did nothing to curb my cravings.  As I usually do when offered chocolate, I ate far over my limit and dealt with my pounding head at the end of the visit.


I may have a chocolate problem–I might go as far as calling myself a chocoholic–but I’m not alone.  Chocolate is one of the most craved foods in the United States (Heatherington and Macdiarmid, 1993).  Although studies with dark chocolate suggests it can lower blood pressure (Ried et al., 2010), over-consumption of it can lead to health deficits like weight gain, or in my case, headaches and sore throats.


A: Blois, France B: Versailles, France C/D: The Chocolate Museum and circus within Paris

A: Blois, France
B: Versailles, France
C/D: The Chocolate Museum and the Kermezzoo circus within Paris

A study by Kemps et al. in 2012 offers a way to curb chocolate cravings through our sense of smell.  In their experiment, they asked 67 female undergraduates between the ages of 18-35 to look at 30 images of 10 different kinds of chocolate food such as cakes, bars, and ice cream.  Each image was shown for 5 seconds with a delay after the image.  During the delay, participants continued to imagine the image they saw in an attempt to produce a cravings for it (Kemps et al., 2005).  During the delay, the participant also smelled a bottle with the scent of water (the control), jasmine (a non-food smell), or green apple (a food smell), then rated their desire for chocolate.  The data collected showed that when participants smelled jasmine, their desire for chocolate was at its lowest.

The teal area shows the cingulate cortex, activated by chocolate consumption during the experiment by Small et al. in 2001.

This study was the first of its kind to link non-food odors as a useful means of suppressing chocolate cravings, but what happened in the brains of these participants?  Another study by Small et al. in 2001 analyzed the brain’s motivation to eat chocolate and found that the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain starts to becomes active when you take that first bite of chocolate and stays active even when you’ve eaten enough chocolate that it becomes averse.  A different study by Small et al. in 1997 showed that stimulating both our taste and smell sensations activates limbic brain areas, which include the cingulate cortex mentioned above.

Some of many brain areas associated with chocolate eating, smelling, and motivation.

Some of many brain areas associated with chocolate eating, smelling, and motivation.


With these two studies in mind, how does all of this fit into the chocolate craving antidote discovered by Kemps et al.?  If together smell and taste can activate the cingulate cortex and the anterior portion of the cingulate cortex is involved with our motivation to eat chocolate, then smelling a non-food smell like jasmine may be blocking something along that processing pathway between chocolate consumption and our motivation to each chocolate in the cingulate cortex.


Of course, this is just my own speculation.  Kemps et al. did not go into further detail about why jasmine effect on the brain our desire to eat chocolate, if jasmine is the only odor with this effect on chocolate cravings, or if jasmine an suppress cravings for other foods.  The study also focused on only one age group and one sex, therefore its results may not seem significant this field until other researchers conduct follow up research.  Regardless, this still an intriguing study in how it offers a potential therapeutic for women who have problematic chocolate cravings or other eating disorders.  Not only that, but maybe it could help people like me who simply don’t want to give up eating something that tastes so wonderful.

-Nicole Asante


Kemps E, Tiggemann M, Bettany S (2012). Non-food odorants reduce chocolate cravings, Appetite 58(3):1087-1090.

Ried K, Sullivan T, Fakler P, Frank O, Stocks N (2010). Does chocolate reduce blood pressure? A meta-analysis, BMC Medicine 8(39).

D Small, Zatorre R, Dagher A, Evans A, Jones-Gotman M (2001). Changes in brain activity related to eating chocolate: From pleasure to aversion, Brain 124:1720-1733.

Small D, Jones-Gotman M, Zatorre R, Petrides M, Evans A (1997). Flavor processing, NeuroReport 8 (18):3913-3917.–files/cingulate-cortex/Screen%20Shot%202012-10-26%20at%202.31.57%20AM.png


Making something look beautiful couldn’t be easier

Even after years of backpacking through museums I still see the same three kinds of gallery visitors: the enthusiasts that try to find the beauty in every piece, the critics that only find value in the works with the most detail or symbolism, and the “oh, that’s cool” troupe that falls in between.  The visitors I saw during my trip to the Musée de l’Orangeire, unfortunately, fell into similar categories.  I suppose I expected to see more enthusiasts in Paris than I had in the United States considering the number of statues and beautiful architecture I discover each day just on my commute to class.

The moment I realized th1at Parisian gallery visitors act no different than those back home happened when I spotted a series of painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  I couldn’t help to stop and stare at his work.  One painting in particular titled “Jeunes filles au piano” really caught my attention.


“Jeunes filles au piano” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir


I identify as a sculpture, a monochromatic one at that, and yet I was captivated by Renior’s palate choice for this painting.  Everything from his brush strokes to the wrinkles of the girls’ clothing to drew the finer details in the chair, dresses, and facial expressions kept me rooted to my spot in awe.  A couple speaking in French broke me from my trance when walked up beside me, pointed the image, then carried on as if not impressed.  A moment later I realized that I stood alone at the paint, the only person  in the room giving it much attention while standing in others walked by it.

Everyone has different kinds of perception and perspectives on art, and yet at time we all interpret many basic forms of art perception similarly.  Despite how we perceive the world in textures, colors, shadow, and highlights, we can still recognize simple line drawings that lack those qualities as quickly and accurately as we can identify photographs of the same scene (Biederman and Ju, 1988).   When someone compares the appeal of an artwork such as a photograph or painting, whatever the viewer considered to be a beautiful paintings created more brain activing in a particular region of the brain than images the individual found ugly (Lengger et al., 2007).  This area of the brain was found to be the left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, or lDLPFC.

Imagine the moments when you’ve had to plan your day’s schedule the night before or when you had to do work out the price of a discounted item in your head.  Both of these tasks activate areas in and around the lDLPFC just like when we judge the beauty of art, places, and even people (Sayim, 2011).

One particular study by Cattaneo et al. hypothesized that how much beauty we see in something or someone is based solely on how much stimulation the lDLPFC receives.  Using twelve participants, these researchers showed them a series of representational or abstract images and asked to rate the images beauty.  Several days later the participants were shown the same set of images but this time underwent either a sham or real transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS.  The tDCS is a stimulator whose electrodes were placed on the skin of the head over the lDLPFC of each participant.  When turned on, the electrodes made the participants’ foreheads tingle and itch for the first 30 seconds before the itching sensation subsided.  The real tDCS stimulation sent electrical pulses to the lDLPFC to cause additional activation in that part of the brain for 20 minutes.  The sham tDCS made the paticipant’s forehead tingle for the first 30 seconds, but it was turned off soon after.  The participants couldn’t tell if they were getting the sham or real tDCS.

The results showed that when stimulated by the real tDCS, the participants rated representational images to be more beautiful than the sham tDCS group.  There was no statistical difference, however, in how the participants rated abstract images compared the sham group.


Stimulation in the lDLPFC caused an increase in the aesthetic mean score value of representational art but not abstract art.

As things turn out, the lDLPFC seems to be related to how much beauty we find in the things we perceive.  Maybe an artist’s or art critic’s constant exposure to artwork caused them to have more stimulation in the lDLPFC and have a greater appreciation for art.   Maybe many people found the Renior’s painting of the girls at the piano too abstract to fully understand.

Works Cited:

Biederman, I., and Kim, J. G. (2008). 17000 years of depicting the junction of two smooth shapes. Perception 37, 161–164.

Sayim B and Cavanagh P, What Line Drawings Reveal About the Visual Brain, Front. Hum. Neurosci. 5 (2011).

Lengger, P., Fischmeister, F., Leder, H., Bauer, H. (2007). Functional neuroanatomy of the perception of modern art: a DC-EEG study on the influence of stylistic information on aesthetic experience. Brain Research, 1158, 93–102.

Cattaneo P, Lega C, Flexas A, Nadal M, Munar E and Cela-Conde C, The world can look better: enhancing beauty experience with brain stimulation, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9 (2013).