Food

Tasting Wine Stimulates Your Brain More Than Math

A Yale neuroscientist says tasting wine "engages more of our brain than any other human behavior."

Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Wine is nature’s glorious nectar. Whether you’re an occasional drinker or full-blown wine snob, the fact remains that once you’ve tasted a fine variety, few can deny wine’s place among the most superior of alcoholic beverages. And now it seems there may even be some evidence to back up that claim.

This is exactly what Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd offers in his new book, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine. Shepherd makes the argument that wine tasting may actually stimulate the brain more than a number of intellectual activities including listening to classical music or doing math. In fact, Shepherd goes as far as to state that tasting wine “engages more of our brain than any other human behavior.”

“On what grounds?” those who hear this likely shout.

The term Shepherd coined to explain this idea was introduced in his previous book, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters. Shepherd postulates that our perception of smell is intrinsically connected to our neural base of consciousness and as a result when we taste something it is because our brain creates that sensation. Add to that the complex interplay of motor control that goes into swilling some wine around in the mouth, as well as the pattern recognition and memory required to decide what flavors a single brand of wine contains, and you’re starting to get on Shepherd’s page.

In an interview with NPR, Shepherd explained this further, saying that “what most people are unaware of is that when you take wine in your mouth and experience the flavor, most of that flavor is due to a kind of internal smelling.”

Internal smelling?

According to Shepherd, this is a complex process involving the liquid of the wine meeting air inside your mouth, both of which are brought together by “coordinated movements of the tongue, jaw, diaphragm and throat.” As a result thousands of taste and odor receptors are triggered, which send signals to the brain. Those signals, once processed by the brain, deliver the sensation that allows a pompous wine swiller to proclaim that the liquid he just consumed contains, “a cheeky bit of oak flavor, and some playful hints of chocolate.”

“The analogy one can use is color,” Shepherd told NPR. “The objects we see don't have color themselves, light hits them and bounces off. It's when light strikes our eyes that it activates systems in the brain that create color from those different wavelengths. Similarly, the molecules in wine don't have taste or flavor, but when they stimulate our brains, the brain creates flavor the same way it creates color.”

So there you have it, folks. If you find yourself in that portion of the population with a penchant for wine tasting you can now rest easy in the knowledge that yours is not simply an excuse to get drunk. Actually, every time you find yourself swirling and swallowing a merlot or chardonnay, you are actually engaged in a complex activity of decoding and interpreting a range of ingredients in an effort to produce that most sought after experience: appreciation.

Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.

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