Day 139: Psychophysics, Qu’est-ce que c’est?

originally published May 18, 2012

The trajectory of this writing experiment is going to fly through some pretty personal space, I’ve accepted that. One of my goals in this exercise is to learn more about myself, why I am the way I am. To that end, I’ll be employing today’s topic – psychophysics –  to help me learn why I am so completely indifferent on the subject of nougat.

Apart from sounding like the most awesome high school science course ever, psychophysics is the scientific study of the relationship between stimulus and sensation. All I really know about this science is what little I’ve skimmed on Wikipedia today, so I’m going to completely misuse it as much as humanly possible. Because this is a solo project, I will be acting as both subject and observer in this experiment. I’m not sure if that is scientifically ethical, especially since it didn’t work out so well for Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, but even that disaster earned a sequel, so I should be okay.

For the required nougat, I will be utilizing the candy bar variety. I know, nougat is sold on its own, mixed with nuts and fruit or whatever, but I grew up near a convenience store, not a confectionary. My encounters with nougat – and my subsequent indifference to it – were forged by the good people at Hershey’s, Cadbury, etc. For this experiment I have purchased a Costco box of Mars (Milky Way for Canadians) and Three Muskateers bars. Using a scalpel and most of my weekend, I removed all traces of chocolate and caramel, leaving me with a stack of unappealing beige slabs. It looks like the most boring animal in the world broke into my house and pooped its beige feces all over my kitchen counter.

I first experimented with the Odor Detection Threshold. I moved to an empty spare bedroom, which may not be lab-pure, but shouldn’t contain any intrusive smells from other foodstuffs, scented candles, potpourri, or seared flesh (I do most of my at-home branding in the den). I deposited three turds of nougat on the dresser, then exited the room. I reentered slowly, keeping track of when I first noticed the odor. Conclusion: I have to be within 2 inches in order to smell the nougat, partly because it doesn’t give off any significant aroma, and partly because my entire house smells like my eldest bulldog, Rufus.

In order to test the Contrast Effect, I would need to consume some nougat immediately following other foods. According to the theory, the nougat should appear awful right after a bite of something enjoyable, and delicious after a bite of a food I don’t care for. Having banished Rufus to the yard and releasing the clamp of death-stench from my olfactory nerve, I prepared my experimentation chamber (that’s ‘kitchen table’ in layman’s terms).

Brussels sprouts, nougat. Definite improvement. Bacon, nougat. Now I wanted more bacon. Tapioca pudding (which I don’t care for), nougat. Meh, whatever. Pralines & cream ice cream, nougat. Okay.

I tried this with a few more foods and found no real contrast either way. Conclusion: nougat inspires no real opinion, however everything on earth tastes better than Brussels sprouts and worse than bacon.

To utilize the Two-Alternative Forced Choice method, I enlisted the help of my lovely wife. I was blindfolded, and she randomly served me teaspoons of either nougat or Quaker oatmeal. The point of the exercise was for me to correctly identify each one immediately upon tasting it. I was successful 100% of the time, until it dawned on me that this experiment holds no practical value. All I learned was that I could identify nougat.

Absolute Threshold would test the lowest detectable level of nougat which I could ingest. This one didn’t work so well either. I sampled a tiny crumb of nougat and was aware that it existed. I thought of mixing increasingly larger amounts of nougat in a glass of orange juice to see when I’d notice a flavor change, but that sounded like a lot of work. Also, I’d have to go buy some orange juice, and I was trying to wrap this up before Wheel of Fortune.

My wife wanted to try out the Stroop Effect. This is when it takes longer to process when you read letters that spell out a color, but the letters are in a different color.

I wasn’t sure how to pull this off, but my wife insisted upon feeding me various foods and calling out other names of foods. This did nothing – was not at all confused between the nougat in my mouth and the cole slaw she claimed it to be.

Lastly I would be utilizing the Stevens’ Power Law. This would be a great name for a workout studio / law firm, but instead the name refers to a psychophysics theory. The idea is that a neutral standard is set – in this case, because we’re talking about candy bars, I’ll employ the most generic and safe of the lot, a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar. We then use that standard to measure the magnitude of other flavors. 1.0 is the measure of the standard.

I tried caramel first. After cracking a half-dozen Rolos into a shot glass, I found that caramel registered at 1.27 – its flavor was a little more powerful than the Hershey’s. I then sampled a piece of dark chocolate my daughter had brought back from Italy. This was good shit – the kind you want to crumble up and smoke, partly to see if you’d catch a buzz and partly because the air in the room would smell so damn good. In the Land of Dairy Queen, this is what they’d use to build their local Tiffany & Company outlet.

The dark chocolate packed quite a punch; I gave it a 1.88 on the scale. Then I sampled the nougat. Again I say, “Meh.” Maybe a 0.42.

That could be the problem. My dispassion and indifference toward nougat might just be its complete blandness. It has a flavor, but it’s dull. Its color is dull. Nougat is filler. In Mars/Milky Way bars, in Snickers bars, in Baby Ruths… it’s the weak point because it is the most unmotivated of all confections. Mars/Milky Way and Snickers have both released caramel-instead-of-nougat versions because that’s what people want.

So I’m not crazy. Thank you science!

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