10 The Cog Sci Corner: Sichuan Peppercorns

Our resident “brain guy” Corey Beilstein is back again with more mind-bending insight. With a Masters in cognitive/human experimental psychology, Corey is a seasoned sensory scientist (hold the salt) with research and real-life experience that spans all the tastiest and most tongue-tingling nooks of our world.

If you loved the McGurk Effect, then this is the side bar for you. For this issue of The Fire Theft Project, I give you: neurological confusion.

Danny’s menu features several dishes with a magical brain-trip ingredient called Sichuan peppercorn. (Technical nerds like me, please note: it’s not a peppercorn from a pepper; it’s the dried outer husk of flowers from the prickly ash shrub. #TheMoreYouKnow)

We humans and our simple tongues, well, we can detect basic tastes (and their signature chemical compositions), plus cold, heat and pressure. Sometimes those sensations fire at the same time in unusual ways, like when chemical irritation from traditional spicy, peppery foods registers as heat. Hot wings. Hot salsa. Spicy chili. You get it. Heat and pain. Easy.

However, as the Sichuan peppercorn hits our tongues, a fancy-word-chemical-component called “sanshool” simultaneously activates the nerve endings in our tongues for cold and pressure, in a combination of signals that, to our brain, Just. Don’t. Make. Sense.

Cue the neurological confusion. The tongue and lips feel cool, yes, but also as if they are vibrating. Buzzing. Numb. It’s not like a carbonated drink… more like sticking your tongue on a 9-volt battery. And combined with the capsicum heat (from peppers and other spices) in Danny’s dishes, the concerto of a truly unique sensory experience begins—that is, if your simple-minded tongue can take it.

If you aren’t able make it to Mission Chinese Food for the Sichuan pickled vegetable platter (featuring tingly cucumbers), the drunken-style wood-oven fish or the spicy peanut noodles, you COULD buy some peppercorns of your own and host a truly trippy “dare” next time your friends drop in! Be sure to take some video to show your pals just how neurologically confused they were later on.

And if you’d like, hit me up for my “Hot Brain Riddle” Holiday Chex Mix recipe—one in which I’ve used Sichuan peppercorns for years.