Why We Drool

image via Abracadebra

Pavlov’s drooling dog has nothing on us.
Each of us pumps out a liter or two of the stuff daily. Food photography, TV cooking shows, even the mere reading of menu descriptions can get us dribbling. A typical year’s worth of saliva could fill your bathtub a few times over.

Saliva is much more than water. It’s teeming with hormones, proteins, and enzymes that heal wounds, keep our teeth from rotting, and help to control the hordes of unhealthy microbes that find their way into our mouths. It’s essential to our sense of taste, helps us to swallow, and makes food digestible.

Drooling also plays a role in weight loss. It’s part of the body’s automatic appetite response. We salivate at the sight, sound, and especially smell of tempting foods and that causes the body to produce insulin, the hormone that encourages our bodies to store fat and triggers hunger signals from the brain and intestines. Basically, drooling is related to the factors that undermine our resolve to eat healthfully—really, who’s drooling over celery sticks?

Successful dieters seem to be able to rewire the appetite response. Research has shown that people who struggle with their weight drool more than individuals who’ve succeeded on diets. It seems that if a dieter can consistently and repeatedly resist temptations, over time their saliva response will decrease. Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows that the toughest part of any diet is just getting started; the drool data tell us that it gets easier if a dieter can push through the early days and reprogram their appetite responses.

It’s not just about food.
Are you drooling over the new iPhone? That’s not just a figure of speech; we really do salivate for material goods. The results from two recent studies published in The Journal of Consumer Research reported increased saliva flow in subjects shown photographs of shiny new sports cars, cashmere sweaters, and piles of money. By contrast, they got dry-mouthed from images of office supplies.

This is all sounding very Pavlovian. Instead of a dog and a bell, we’re drooling reflexively over everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to paper bills with pictures of dead presidents. But we are not simple stimulus-response machines. We are infinitely more complex with active internal lives and the capacity to ignore, resist, choose, and change. We’re not immune to conditioning, but we are free to chart a different course.

Now that we know why we drool, we can use the knowledge to rise above it.



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