Does Pain Affect Taste?

The water is cold. So cold that my body is aching and shaking.

I’ve been at around 15 metres depth in Hout Bay, for almost 20 minutes and it is barely over 7 degrees Celcius. Hypothermia isn’t far off. I need something to focus on to take my mind off the cold. I have a LiquiFruit (it’s a lunch box fruit juice we get in South Africa) in my BC jacket. I take it out, blow some air into the straw, punch it into the box, and suck in the sweet juice. It tastes different somehow, and probably has something to do with the cold, but maybe it also has something to do with the dull, throbbing pain?

That was almost a decade ago when I was doing a commercial diving course (it was great fun, I recommend everyone do it), but the thought has stuck with me – if pain can induce our “Fight or Flight” response, maybe it can also affect our tastes? After all when last did you take a careful comparative taste of something when you were in pain?

So, I thought I’d do an experiment. It’s not entirely valid because there’s only one subject in my test ‘group’ but it might give a glimmer of light where there was none – does pain affect taste?


Enter, Kenneth. Now Kenneth is designer and sound guy of note (in fact, if you need either, give him a shout here, tell him I sent you and he’ll hook you up good and proper with sound/lighting/design.) . Regrettably he’s a smoker so some ranges of his taste spectrum are probably skewed and he likes his coffee sweet. Although that being said he can appreciate fine food and delicate tastes.


As a control, I blindfolded Kenny, and randomly gave him samples to taste at different concentrations. All he had to do was say what it was and how strong/weak he tasted it. After that we went through the same procedure, except he had his hand in a bucket of ice and water. That might not sound painful but believe me, it is excruciating and I’m impressed with anyone that can last more than a minute. (Kenny can. He’s my hero. There, I said it.)


So After doing the test I compiled the data and found that he could detect the taste pretty much exactly the same as before. But then things got strange,  not only could he taste as per usual but he tasted sour and bitter as very strong – much stronger than during the control test.

What’s interesting is that the fight or flight response is in response to danger. Most poisonous plants in the wild are bitter; perhaps the fight or flight response has more to do with getting you away from the situation by making even what we taste seem unpalatable?

What do you think?