Imagine sucking a lemon

Imagine sucking a slice of fresh lemon. Imagine the texture and flavour…

So.. I was reading an article about Adrian Owen recently (Cyranoski, 2012). Owen is a researcher who found a way of communicating with some people who are in a permanent vegetative state. Basically, Owen put someone in a brain scanner and asked them to imagine playing tennis and all then bits of the person’s brain that control playing tennis started firing. Then, he asked them to imagine moving around their own home, those bits of the person’s brain (distinctly different from when imagining playing tennis) became active. This gave Owen and his colleagues a simple Yes/No means of communicating with people in a vegetative state. According to the article he has now developed a mobile system using EEG so that he can go out to people and try this. (This is not new and has been around in the literature for a while.)

BUT… the technique doesn’t work for everybody. This is where the lemons come in. Another group (Wilhelm et al., 2006) found a woman for whom Owen’s technique didn’t work. So they tried something else. Instead of imagining playing tennis and walking around her home, they asked her to imaging sucking a lemon and drinking some milk. This produced distinctly different patterns of activation in her brain and it also produced a reproducible change in the pH levels on her tongue!! Again, the researchers had a simple, binary means of communication. (This reference isn’t new either but it’s the first time I’ve come across it.)

The first piece of work points the separation between thinking about an act and doing the act. That both involve the same neural processes and it seems likely that the difference is that a threshold must be passed before the neural activity prompts physical activity.

The second piece of research points to the way in which we anticipate food (and objects). The references in Wilhelm et al. (2012) include earlier work showing how anticipation of food increases salivation. Their work showed that the anticipation is much more nuanced than this. Furthermore, I think the word ‘anticipation’ is better than ‘imagination’ because imagination suggests something visual whereas this work suggests that we anticipate the food with the senses that we use to experience the food.

For me this ties into my broader interest in what happens when we give someone an object and the research reinforces the idea that we rehearse holding the object and anticipate the experience of the object before we actually encounter it. The moment of encounter involves the (mis)fit of our expectations and reality.

One question that remains is – how hard do you have to think about sucking lemons before these changes occur? If you just looked at a picture of someone eating a lemon, would that be enough or would you really have to roll the idea around in your head?


Cyranoski (2012) ‘The Mind Reader’, Nature, 486, 14 June, 178-180

Wilhelm, B., Jordan, M. & Birbaumer, N. (2006), Neurology, 67, 534-535


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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