Think of your tongue as a sensory Russian nesting doll. You’ve probably noticed those little bumps on your tongue, but they aren’t taste buds; they’re papillae, which help maneuver and manipulate the meal in your mouth. Within each of these nodes, multiple taste buds await chemical information — better known as, you know, food — and once each morsel hits them, they help you sense sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami flavors.
But the process doesn’t stop there: Each taste bud is home to 50 to 100 taste receptor cells, which relay your meal’s chemical makeup to the brain via cranial nerves. From there, the intel makes its way to your central nervous system and triggers specific areas of the brain, evoking your fight-or-flight response, childhood memories or even emotions. Beyond your tongue, you have taste buds on the roof of your mouth, in your cheeks and down your throat, all helping you sweat from those peppers or feel just that little bit of ease from lavender.
Taste is 80 percent smell, after all, so whatever you’re smelling just before you take that first bite is already sending a jolt of information to your brain and forming your experience. And you quite literally inhale your food: When you’re smelling spices and seasonings, or any other substance, it’s molecules from those ingredients hitting your olfactory epithelium. This transmits chemical information to the brain, which also pings chemical-specific areas, activating sensations.
*Don’t worry — taste buds always regenerate, and they do it every 10 to 14 days. Here’s lookin’ at you, biology.
**That eye-watering mouthful won’t hurt you; there’s a difference between spice heat and temperature heat, and in fact they activate different receptors in the brain. If you eat too many chilies, your tongue may be numb for a bit, but you haven’t deadened your taste buds for days as you would with something just off the stove. Of course, it’s possible to burn your mouth with both types of heat at once, and if that’s the case, color me impressed.