Author Archives: Sasha Cukier

The chocolate adventures of a chocolatier’s daughter in Paris

Chocolate. Chocolate. Chocolate. I can’t even begin to describe how much I love it. To give you guys a bit of context on my never-ending craving, my mom started a chocolate company while I was growing up. On a daily basis, my whole house smelt of freshly rolled truffles, baked brownies and chocolate cookies. Now, everywhere I go, I need to make sure that I have chocolate available at all times.   In my Parisian dorm room, I have at least five chocolate bars in stock. The satisfactory feeling of biting into a creamy piece mid-essay is unbeatable.

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Map of some of the best boulangeries in Paris

Walking around Paris, I love to stop at boulangeries and try whatever they have to offer, chocolate style. Some of my favorites so far include pain au chocolat, opera cake, and chocolate crepes. I recently spent the afternoon vising my brother and his wife in Belgium, and was in chocolate heaven. The Belgian chocolate brownie I had was life changing. My chocolate adventures continued this past Friday when I went to Le Musée Gourmand du Chocolat in Paris. It was quite the delicious experience; I indulged in cinnamon hot chocolate, praline, and other rare chocolates from all over the world. Best afternoon yet.


Me at Le Musée Gourmand du Chocolat

My current neuroscience mindset made me start to wonder how my chocolate cravings translate to brain activity. In a study by Frankort et al. the researchers studied the short-term effects of chocolate cravings on behavior, specifically how neuroimaging can predict chocolate consumption. The two different experimental groups consisted of participants who smelt chocolate and participants who didn’t, with 17 females in each group. They compared self-reported craving to brain activation showed by fMRI scans which measures the change in blood flow in different brain areas. Previous studies have found that prolonged chocolate exposure, like the chocolate scent group, leads to a decrease in craving. This effect was not observed in the Frankort et al. study; perhaps because the fMRI scan interrupted the 1-hour scent exposure sessions, which displays a weakness of the study since the interruptions don’t accurately model a real life situation.

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Brain activation in areas correlated with chocolate intake. Green: whole group anterior PFC activation, Yellow: exposed group caudate and frontopolar cortex activation, Purple: control group dorsolateral PFC and mid-dorsolateral PFC reduced activation.

Primarily, Frankort et al. found that neural activation in the right caudate and the left lateral frontopolar cortex predicted chocolate intake in the exposure group. The left lateral frontopolar cortex and the right caudate are both associated with reward and memory (Pochon et al. 2002), which explains the chocolate consumption. Furthermore, the left dorsolateral and mid-dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) correlated negatively with consumption in the control group, meaning the activation predicted decreased intake. These findings make sense since this area is associated with cognitive control (I would guess that I don’t have a very active left and mid-dorsolateral PFC when it comes to chocolate consumption). In both groups, the right anterior PFC, activation was associated with chocolate intake. This region is associated with cognitive behavior, planning and decision making (Wikipedia).

These regions of activation represent a better measure of future chocolate intake than self-reported craving, meaning that my brain knows I’m going to crave chocolate better than I am consciously aware of! The most surprising fact from this study was that overall self-reported chocolate craving did not correlate with intake. Meaning, just because I think I crave chocolate doesn’t mean I necessarily crave it. To really know if I crave something I would have to check my brain scans! A significant weakness of this study was how craving was measured by asking participants one question. Future studies should include a more appropriate measure of craving with multiple questions, since just having one may not fully explain the results.

This newfound knowledge on self reported craving has definitely made me rethink my chocolate consumption. Is a craving really a craving without brain activation? Whatever the answer to this question, I’m going to eat all the chocolate I can in this last week! Maybe I should rename the program title to Neuroscience, Chocolate and Paris.


Me eating un pain au chocolat


Me eating a chocolate cake











Frankort A, Roefs A, Siep N, Roebroeck A, Havermans R, Jansen A. (2015) Neural predictors of chocolate intake following chocolate exposure. Appetite. 87:98-107

Pochon JB, Levy R, Fossati P, Lehericy S, Poline JB, Pillon B, Le Bihan D, Dubois B (2002) The neural system that bridges reward and cognition in humans. An fMRI study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 99: 5669–5674


M Squared: Meditation and Monet

As soon as I landed in Paris and stepped off the plane, I kept repeating to myself: take a deep breath, and appreciate all that this wonderful city has to offer. I have done countless hours of walking aimlessly around Paris, discovering cute hidden spots and narrow passages. I love the culture and the rich history which surrounds me in all of my visits.

Map of A: Musée de l’Orangerie , B: Musée Dupuytren, and C: Musée de l’Histoire de la Médecine, in Paris

Our course curriculum on this Neuroscience in Paris summer program includes visits to museums and landmarks around Paris, which broadens our perspective and gives context to some of the concepts we learn. Museums we have visited this week include the Musée de l’Orangerie, the Musée Dupuytren and the Musée de l’Histoire de la Médecine. These thought provoking visits bring me back to a topic which I have become very interested in: mindfulness.

The concept of mindfulness comes from ancient Tibetan Buddhists, and promotes one to be aware of thoughts that arise in the present moment. Merriam-Webster Dictionary uses words such as attention, alertness, awareness and observation as examples of some possible synonyms. This methodology allows increased concentration and increased appreciation of the artwork seen in museums, and allows one to truly capture and experience each moment. While at the Musée de l’Orangerie, I was in awe of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, highlighted by a skylight.

Me at the Musée de l’Orangerie with Monet's Water Lilies

Me at the Musée de l’Orangerie with Monet’s Water Lilies

Monet’s enormous works panned almost the entire length of the large, white oval-shaped walls. As I sat down, I employed practices of mindful-attention to really enjoy the work. Based on traditional papers, attention training represents a centripetal element of meditation practice. Meditation greatly influences one’s ability to act mindfully and it also works to improve awareness.

In an article published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Desbordes et al. (2012) found that the beneficial effects of meditation training on emotional processing can likely transfer to non–meditative states. The study, titled: Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary non-meditative state, aimed to test if the amygdala’s response to emotional stimuli would decrease after mindful-attention meditation training for eight weeks.

Image of the Amygdala

Located in the temporal lobe of the brain, the amygdala contributes to memory processing, decision-making and emotional reactions. As a main component of the limbic system, the amygdala involves many functions such as emotion, behavior, attention, sensory processing and motivation. You can think of it as the human center for emotion. Many studies (at least 10 that I know of) have found that meditation training can improve one’s attention skills, which motivated me to explore this subject.

In this study, the 8-week mindful attention training involved personal awareness in addition to a focus on external environments. This training involves mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of mental events and awareness of awareness (sounds strange, I know, but bear with me). This study also examined the effects of compassion-based meditation on amygdala activity, but my primary interests lie in mindfulness meditation since it directly relates to art appreciation, and to my recent museum visits. During recordings, participants did not enter a meditative state. This methodology was used to see if the meditation has a long lasting effect. This study examined participants aged 25-55 with no prior experience in meditation. Researchers took two fMRI’s; the first occurred three weeks prior to the meditation intervention, and the second, three weeks after. The fMRI, also known as a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan, measures brain activity through changes in blood flow (Wikipedia). The researchers presented various images to the participants, just as I was looking at various Monet paintings. The scans showed decreased brain activation levels (blood flow) in the right hemisphere of the amygdala (associated with negative emotions) but not in the left.

fMRI Scans of the Right Amygdala (marked by red cross)


There was no significant difference in activation levels before training, meaning that the introduction of the meditation practice changed the blood flow in the amygdala. Researchers also found that as you increase the amount of time you spend meditating, blood flow in the right amygdala continues to diminish. These results led to the conclusion that practicing meditation can affect your emotional response to stimuli.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a pioneer in this work, promotes mindful living in daily activities, relationships, and health behaviors. Nhat Hanh focuses on the concept of “interbeing”, which describes the interconnection of all things around us. Looking at Monet’s paintings, I thought about the interdependence of all the elements in the painting itself, and how all of those elements combine to make the final masterpiece. For example, the lilies rest on the water and depend on it for support, the flowers grow on those lilies, and the sun and moonlight hit the water to create beautiful reflections at different times of day.

Monet's Water Lilies

Monet’s Water Lilies

From another perspective, I thought about the work Monet put into those paintings, specifically, the different colors and brushes and tables he may have used. Mindfulness allows one to go deeper into these works of art and see them not as stand-alone objects, but as a multitude of interconnected elements. The authors hypothesized that their results may indicate an improvement in attention skills. This research does not stand-alone. Previous research also determined that experimental tasks which involved rating based on emotions, reduced amygdala activity (Hariri et al., 2000; Taylor et al., 2003; Hutcherson et al.,2008a). Furthermore, another study by Taylor et al. (2012) examined connections between multiple brain areas, and found that meditation training changes connections between certain areas, which could also explain increased awareness. Therefore, we can understand reduced amygdala activity as an increase in attention and awareness, an ideal practice to employ during museum visits.

I hope to expand my knowledge in this field by engaging in Emory’s Cognitively- Based Compassion Training (CBCT). This training program encourages students to engage in meditative and reflexive practices in their day-to-day lives.  If you have any interest in learning more about meditation, optimism, well-being, empathy and many more happiness boosting topics, I encourage you to visit For those of you interested in science, this list of research articles at, ties together information from the articles on the general site with scientific research. Have fun exploring the website! I hope you consider incorporating mindfulness in you day to day lives and hope that you try out meditation!

Sasha Cukier

Thich Nhat Hanh Quote



Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TWW, Wallace BA, Raison CL, Schwartz (2012) Effects of mindful-attention and compassion mediation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Front Hum Neurosci. 6:292

Hariri A. R., Bookheimer S. Y., Mazziotta J. C. (2000).Modulating emotional responses: effects of a neocortical network on the limbic system. Neuroreport 11, 43–48

Hutcherson C. A., Goldin P. R., Ramel W., McRae K., Gross J. J. (2008a). Attention and emotion influence the relationship between extraversion and neural response.Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 3, 71–79 10.1093

Taylor S. F., Phan K. L. L., Decker L. R., Liberzon I. (2003). Subjective rating of emotionally salient stimuli modulates neural activity. NeuroImage 18, 650–659 10.1016/S1053-8119(02)00051-4


Map of Paris:

Amygdala Image:

fMRI Scan:

Monet’s Water Lilies:,_Water_Lilies,_ca._1915-1926.jpg

Thich Nhat Hahn Quote: