Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Wine and Neuroscience

In his book Proust Was A Neuroscientist, journalist and author Jonah Lehrer has a whole chapter explaining the neuroscience behind our sense of smell and taste. He describes how Escoffier invented the veal stock, therefore the secret of deliciousness: the denatured protein from the bones, the burned bit of meat in the bottom of the pan are full of L-glutamate, which is now known as umami. Additionally, we enjoy food that smells good. According to Neuroscientists, up to 90 percent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell.

But our sense of taste and smell, says Lehrer, is greatly influenced by subjectivity. “Impressions are always incomplete and require a dash of subjectivity to render them whole. When we bind or parse our sensations, what we are really doing is making judgments about what we think we are sensing. This unconsious act of interpretation is largely driven by contextual clues.”

That's because the olfactory bulb is flooded with information from higher brain functions, like the memories of past experiences.

To illustrate this point, Lehrer describes a couple of mischievous experiments conducted by Frédéric Brochet, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bordeaux. In the first test, 57 wine experts tasted a white wine and a red wine and were asked to describe them. Adjectives like "fresh, dry, honeyed, lively" were used for the white wine, whereas the red wine was found "intense, spicy, supple, deep." In reality, the two wines were identical, the red one was just dyed red.

In the other experiment, tasters were given two wines in two different bottles, one labeled as a cheap table wine, the other labeled as a Bordeaux Grand Cru. The Grand Cru was characterized as "woody, complex, and round" and the cheap wine as "short, light, and faulty". Here again, the two wines were the exact same mid-range Bordeaux.

“What these experiments illuminate” says Lehrer, “is the omnipresence of subjectivity. Our human brain has been designed to believe itself, wired so that prejudices feel like facts, opinions are indistinguishable from the actual sensation. If we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap.”

“Without our subjectivity we could never decipher our sensations, ” concludes Lehrer, “ and without our sensations we would have nothing about which to be subjective. Before you can taste the wine you have to judge it.”

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1 comment:

Jamie said...

Wow, this is the first time I have ever heard of such a concept -- a neuroscientist. It must be a pretty interesting job.