AUTHORS: Harrar V, Toepel U, Murray MM, Spence C

Experimental Brain Research, 214(3): 351-6, October 2011


Choosing what to eat is a complex activity for humans. Determining a food’s pleasantness requires us to combine information about what is available at a given time with knowledge of the food’s palatability, texture, fat content, and other nutritional information. It has been suggested that humans may have an implicit knowledge of a food’s fat content based on its appearance; Toepel et al. (Neuroimage 44:967-974, 2009) reported visual-evoked potential modulations after participants viewed images of high-energy, high-fat food (HF), as compared to viewing low-fat food (LF). In the present study, we investigated whether there are any immediate behavioural consequences of these modulations for human performance. HF, LF, or non-food (NF) images were used to exogenously direct participants’ attention to either the left or the right. Next, participants made speeded elevation discrimination responses (up vs. down) to visual targets presented either above or below the midline (and at one of three stimulus onset asynchronies: 150, 300, or 450 ms). Participants responded significantly more rapidly following the presentation of a HF image than following the presentation of either LF or NF images, despite the fact that the identity of the images was entirely task-irrelevant. Similar results were found when comparing response speeds following images of high-carbohydrate (HC) food items to low-carbohydrate (LC) food items. These results support the view that people rapidly process (i.e. within a few hundred milliseconds) the fat/carbohydrate/energy value or, perhaps more generally, the pleasantness of food. Potentially as a result of HF/HC food items being more pleasant and thus having a higher incentive value, it seems as though seeing these foods results in a response readiness, or an overall alerting effect, in the human brain.

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