The Frontal Cortex

The Taste of Sensory Experience

A few weeks ago, John Lanchester wrote a thoughtful meditation on the intertwined nature of perception, smell and taste:

A taste or a smell can pass you by, unremarked or nearly so, in large part because you don’t have a word for it; then you see the thing and grasp the meaning of a word at the same time, and both your palate and your vocabulary have expanded. One day, you catch the smell of gooseberries from a Sauvignon Blanc, or red currants from a Cabernet, or bubble gum from a Gamay, or horse manure from a Shiraz, and from that point on you know exactly what people mean when they say they detect these things. The smell of a “corked” bottle of wine, for instance, is something that, once it has been pointed out to you, you never forget.

The idea that your palate and your vocabulary expand simultaneously might sound felicitous, but there is a catch. The words and the references are really useful only to people who have had the same experiences and use the same vocabulary: those references are to a shared basis of sensory experience and a shared language. To people who haven’t had those shared experiences, this way of talking can seem like horse manure, and not in a good way.

Consider product A, in which

layers of cedar and raspberry strike a sharp upfront note, while clove and creamy notes add body while contributing an exotic, sumptuous character that conveys luxury in its essence. Might there also be a trace of rubber, though?

And then there’s B, with

its aroma of underripe bananas, and the way the fruitiness opens up on my tongue with a flick of bitterness that quickly fades to reveal lush, grassy tones.

Product C, on the other hand, is

fruity (with a high-profile role for the deliciously garbagey, overripe smell of guava) plus floral (powdery rosy) plus green (neroli and oakmoss).

These are descriptions of, respectively, a chocolate, an olive oil, and a perfume, but you couldn’t possibly guess that. I’ve never caught traces of red fruit in a dark chocolate, I don’t even know what neroli is, and, as for underripe bananas in olive oil, I’m more likely to catch the Sundance Kid in Bolivia. That doesn’t mean that the people who can taste these things are bluffing; rather, they have a vocabulary of specific sense references that I haven’t acquired. (To complicate matters, sometimes these people actually are bluffing.) There is a loss involved in learning about taste: as you gain a more detailed and precise vocabulary, you risk talking to fewer and fewer people–the people who know what these taste references mean. As your vocabulary becomes more specific, more useful, it also becomes less inclusive.

In other words, sensory experience allows the brain to more accurately parse its sensations. Instead of just saying that the red wine tastes like red wine, we are able to make some annoying reference to the hint of cherry cola in that Chianti Classico. I’d only add that it’s sometimes incredibly pleasurable to experience sensations that can’t be so easily parsed apart. I recently had a really, really delicious meal of Japanese fusion food. One of the aspects of the meal that made it so enjoyable was the fact that I didn’t really understand what I was eating. The food was so damn original that I could do little more than bite, swallow and make some happy grunting noises. But I really wasn’t able to pick out the herbal notes of the shiso sauce, or distinguish between the salty, umami presence of the homemade soy sauce and the dashi reduction. Was that a whiff of ginger? Did I just detect some yuzu? Etc, etc. For the most part, each dish was a delicious mystery. Every bite was a question.

I have no doubt that, were I to eat such food more often (not that I could afford to), my tongue and nasal receptors would grow more precise in their sensory evaluations. But I have to admit that there was something utterly enjoyable about now knowing anything. I didn’t know what, exactly, I was eating. I only knew that it tasted really good.


  1. #1 Dr X
    March 18, 2008

    It fascinates me that sensory experience and language are so intertwined. When I was younger, I worked for a time as a bartender. During the slow times of the business day, I’d clown around with customers, exchanging jokes, card tricks and anything else that might be interesting or entertaining. One thing I used to do was have a customer close his eyes and lay out three glasses: one would be filled with 7-Up, one with Pepsi and one with ginger ale.

    People would sip from each, and difficult as this might be to believe, they all struggled to identify each drink when deprived of sight and the knowledge of what they were drinking. We didn’t use generic brand syrups at the bar and it was all poured from the same hose, so the carbonation and temperature levels were relatively constant. Often, they would demand palate cleanses between sips or accuse me of trickery as they struggled to identify the beverages.

    The bar also served a restaurant, and when customers ordered one of these beverages, they wouldn’t complain about anything being wrong with their drinks. I’ve done this with perfectly sober people outside a bar, as well. I’m not saying each drink doesn’t have a unique flavor composition, but words and even sight do sometimes dramatically affect our perception of taste.

  2. #2 amybuilds
    March 20, 2008

    Isn’t much of this training? A learned response?

    I think about children and food. There are people who will tell you that their kids eat anything but those people are probably lying. My experience is that kids crave singular tastes. The simple taste of an orange, of PLAIN chicken, of a burger with nothing else on it, a cheese stick, an apple slice, or of course anything with sugar.

    We don’t start to experiment with mixing things together until we are older. Then it seems we have become bored with the simple tastes and we crave a Merlot with cherry overtones or whatever…

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