The developmental cognitive neuroscience of the Great British Bake-off

The Great British Bake-off has quickly become a fixture in the cultural life of the UK. For a few weeks the country is obsessed with the fluffiness of the ultimate Victoria sponge, the moistness of the ideal carrot cake, and the layering of the perfect Black Forest Gateau. For the poor souls who are not familiar with the format, a selection of amateur bakers is charged with making a certain type of baked good. Usually the contestants have some artistic licence to add interesting flavour combinations to the standard recipe. The creations are then judged on taste, presentation, texture and other aspects.

But how do we find the perfect cake and tell it apart from a mediocre one? The first line of judgment is pretty obvious. Cakes that are misshapen, under-baked, or horrible in taste are pretty easy to spot. However, the difference between good bakes is more subtle. Furthermore, there is a great variety of cakes and full marks in one category do not guarantee full marks in another. For instance, a sponge cake is supposed to be very light and fluffy, not too moist and with little taste on its own. In contrast, the carrot cake is much denser, contains more moisture, and is richly flavoured with spices. These categories are almost exclusive – one would not want a dense sponge cake or a flavourless carrot cake. It seems that bakers and cake connoisseurs posses a representation of cake categories that they can use to judge creations against something like the Platonic ideal of a certain cake type.

The formation of (cake) categories

Surely, even Mary Berry wasn’t born with a representation of the most angelic Angel cake and must have learned these categories along the way. Probably, the representation differentiated from simple categories like “sweet stuff” to a more refined representations liked “baked sweet stuff with a light texture and golden brown colour”. An important aspect of the formation of these representations is exposure to many different examples that enable the extraction of communalities that allow for category formation. This process is known as statistical learning. A classic example of statistical learning comes from studies about language acquisition in infants by Jenny Saffran and colleagues. One of the first steps in language learning for infants is to segment the continuous stream of speech into chunks and then to identify words from these chunks. For example, the infant would have to segment the speech stream ‘prettybaby’ into the constituent parts ‘pret-ty-ba-by’ and then identify their association with words, i.e. ‘pret-ty ba-by’ rather than ‘pre ty-ba by’. A possible way for the infant to achieve this feat is to learn which syllables frequently go together. In order to investigate this possibility, Saffran and colleagues exposed infants to different combinations of three syllables to create pseudowords that do not actually exist in the infants’ native language. After a short exposure, infants reacted differently to re-ordered combinations of the pseudowords compared to entirely new syllable combinations indicating that the infants had learned the statistical association between the syllables. Similarly, by exposure to many different examples of Sponge cake, we learn that they occupy a particular corner in the cake representational space in which features like golden colour, light texture, and buttery taste co-occur.

Neural correlates of category formation

Now, what are the underlying mechanisms in the brain that help us to achieve such a remarkable ability to extract communalities and form categories from the vast complexity of objects that we encounter? Unsurprisingly multiple brain areas need to interact to accomplish this task. On one hand, there are primary sensory regions that extract the lower level features of the stimulus in each modality, e.g. the basic shape and colour of the cake, the lemony smell etc. Many of these features are shared between different types of cake and are not specific to a cake category. However, these features can be connected to previous encounters in memory. This is mediated by a medial temporal system, particularly circuits of the hippocampus. Particular combinations of features may evoke a memory that links to a particular type of cake, e.g. the memory of the marvellous madeleines that Grandma Proust used to make.

However, category learning extends beyond retrieval of explicit memories. Freedman and colleagues identified a neural correlate of this categorisation in neurons in the prefrontal cortex. They trained monkeys to categories pictures of cats and dogs that were morphed to lie along a continuum. Neurons in the prefrontal cortex corresponded to their categorisation, e.g. “on” for picture categorised as a cat and “off” for a picture categorised as a dog, even though the stimuli themselves were continuous. These sharp categorisations may arise through feedback loops between the prefrontal cortex and the mesolimbic system involved in reward and reward prediction. Through the integration of these systems, learning about the association between the a particular stimulus and a reward is generalised to other similar stimuli.

As these examples show, the art of baking links to the deepest mysteries of how mind and brain make sense of a complex world based on limited experience and from a very early age. So, enjoy your next bake – it might expand the palette of your categorical representation!

References

Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical Learning by 8-Month-Old Infants. Science (New York, N.Y.), 274(5294), 1926–1928. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.274.5294.1926

Seger, C. A., & Miller, E. K. (2010). Category learning in the brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 33(1), 203–219. http://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.neuro.051508.135546

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