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Last week, I attended the annual Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland, Oregon, which you may read all about in my two part summary series here: Part I and Part II. I wanted to take one particular experience from the conference and elaborate a little more. Specifically, I’d like to present to you the fascinating research by Tim Gaiser on the Neuroscience of Wine Tasting and some of the interesting findings that have come out the study.
What is the purpose of this research?
The most important implication for this research is in the art of teaching tasting. According to Gaiser, the challenge of teaching wine tasting to individuals is complex: 1) we have to try and present to students our own vocabulary and experiences for wine, which may or may not resonate with each individual mind; 2) each individual student has a different neurology from everyone else, as well as different memories and experiences; and 3) we have to come up with a way to find the common denominator for tasting, so that each student may more easily learn using their own personal experiences instead of using other people’s experiences that have been impressed upon them. Thus, the overall goal of the research is to improve upon the way we teach wine tasting so that the students learn in a shorter period of time and learn to utilize their own memories and experiences.
How did he do it?
In order to find this common denominator, Gaiser set out to examine the strategies/neurological connections of some of the best wine tasters around the world. What were the individual strategies of these professional wine tasters? How are their neurologies connected to allow them to pick out intimate details about the wine? How can we use this information obtained from the experts to teach others how to taste?
2009 Film Session Results
In recorded tasting sessions with Tim Gaiser in 2009, with the help of Behavioral Scientist, Tim Hallbom, it was found that eye positions and patterns are critical to experienced tasters, and olfactory cues (smells) trigger a specific image memory connection to the tasters which allow them to identify a particular smell or taste from the wine.
After the film session results, Gaiser set out to repeat the 2009 Film Session experiment with several wine experts. What he found is that these positions and images are unique for every single individual taster, which means finding the common denominator for teaching purposes even more difficult. In order to find this commonality, each experience needed to be broken down in a sort of sequence, in order to perhaps create a teachable sequence for new and training tasters. Specifically, the experience was broken down into the following categories: language usage and patterns, eye movements and patterns, olfactory images, internal image maps, and visual constructs for calibrating the structure of the tasting experience.
What were the findings?
One interesting outcome of these tasting sessions was that not only to do individuals make different connections and have different experiences during tasting, but they also taste differently depending upon the reason for tasting. Were they tasting for pleasure? As a buyer? As a wine reviewer? For teaching purposes? Depending upon the reason for tasting, the individual strategies of each taster was slightly modified.
One of the first things each taster would notice prior to tasting the wine was the color. This visual cue gives hints as to how old the wine is, possible grape varieties, and possibly the style of winemaking used. The tasters were able to identify these characteristics by referencing internal color swatches in their memories from previously experienced/tasted wines. Often, an internal auditory prompt (such as “what color is this?”) would initiate the image recollection process for identifying certain characteristics elicited from the wine.
Moving on to smelling the wine, Gaiser noted that all of the tasters used an extremely consistent starting eye position or pattern when smelling the wine. Most tasters had a sort of forward and down eye position while smelling the wine, while one taster appeared to have a darting around-type eye movement position. This starting position is the place of focus and concentration, and the position which elicits the olfactory image recollection connections in the brain. Similar to the color, nearly all tasters experienced an auditory prompt in addition to the eye positions to get the tasting started (i.e. “what does this smell like?”).
How about you? Where is your starting eye position?
Take a glass of wine (in a standard wine glass). Now, simply go about your usual method for smelling the wine. Where do you notice your eyes are? This position is imprinted in your neurology and wherever you notice your eyes are positioned is the position that elicits the olfactory connections in your brain. For me, this position was down and slightly centered in front. You are allowed to close your eyes if that is more comfortable, but note your eyes are still in a particular position.
Once you find this position, keep smelling the wine while moving your eyes in a different position. Do you notice any change in the aroma? For me, I noticed that the smell almost went away completely when I changed the position of my eyes. What did you experience?
Eye Assessing Cues
This study of eye patterns is not new to the study of neurology, as many books and scholarly articles have presented results showing relationships between eye movements and internal memories/representations. During the 1970s and 80s, several collaborating researchers found that eye pattern movements were associated with the activation of different parts of the brain. These patterns are near consistent across many individuals, however, for left-handed individuals (such as myself), these patterns can be reversed. Even if an individual recalls visual cues in a different pattern, this pattern is at the very least consistent and repeatable. Read this article by Robert Dilts for a more detailed analysis on this research by clicking here.
|Courtesy: Robert Dilts (see link above)
Olfactory Image Connections
Another interesting finding from Gaisers’ research is that all tasters represent specific aromas and flavors of the wine with internal images or words, or a combination of the two. These images were both still or moving, depending upon the individual taster. Also, these images varied in size, location, color and brightness. Gaiser also found that there was a relationship between the intensity of the aroma and the structure of the image. These images are presented in a particular sequence for each individual taster, which combine to be what is referred to as an “image map”, which was found to be unique and vary dramatically from individual to individual.
After finding your eye position, go ahead and smell the wine. What do images do you see? What sort of pattern do you see these images? How about the size of the images? Does the main characteristic of the wine present itself as a very large image? Or perhaps not large but maybe very brightly colored? What do you see in your minds’ eye?
For me, I only saw words, which was relatively frustrating since nearly all of the others in the room saw bright and vivid images. I wonder if my experience was so different because I’m left-handed, or maybe I haven’t had the experiences necessary to elicit the appropriate image for the aroma of that particular wine.
Now, try changing these images. If you see the image as large and up close, try shrinking the image by moving it further into the background. What happens to the aroma? Does it change? Does the aroma become less pronounced and harder to smell? Is the image in color? What happens when you change this image to black and white? How did the aroma change?
Interestingly, this research found that changing the images in one’s mind changed the tasters’ experience of the wine. Related to the palate versus the nose, a stronger intensity on the palate versus the nose resulted in the image increasing in size, brightness or location. As one would expect, a lower intensity on the palate versus the nose resulted in the image decreasing in size, brightness or location.
Structure of Wine
The structure of the wine also elicited image recollection for each individual taster. For some tasters, a sort of ruler or other calibrating image was presented in the mind, and depending upon the structure of the wine, the focal point of the image would change. For example, for acidity, one taster saw a 12-inch ruler with marks on it for low, medium, and high. After tasting the wine, the taster was able to focus on and point to a particular point on the ruler in order to identify the acidity of the wine. Similar mechanisms were found for alcohol content, tannin, and finish.
|Example of an image elicited for structural identification in wine tasting
How do these results help us teach others about tasting wine?
According to Gaiser, the results of this study indicate that we should teach students to identify color and age in wine using color spectrums and swatches. We should also help students become aware of the aroma-to-image connections they already have in their mind, and to utilize these images to identify aromas and flavors in the wine. The students should be presented with images in order to create new memories in their psyche, particularly if they’ve never experienced a particular aroma or flavor on their own. Finally, Gaiser claims we should teach students how to taste without wine, as well as teach students to calibrate the structural elements of wine by using internal visual scales.
What are your thoughts?
What do you all think of this research? Of course, it was not a controlled experiment, thereby the results have to be taken with a grain of salt, but regardless, I found the results very fascinating and worthy of future experimentation and research. I think it’s a great idea to teach students to utilize their own memories and experiences when tasting the wines, and when these memories and experiences do not exists (say, if they’ve never had a fig before and the main flavor component of the wine they are tasting happens to be fig), they should be given the opportunity to create new image maps in the mind by tasting these elements outside of the wine format.
I did leave slightly frustrated, however, in that I never saw images when smelling the wine. Gaiser noted later in a question-and-answer session that these images are moving at an extremely fast pace, so perhaps I have not yet learned to slow down these images to a point where I can see them. I did, however, see words pop up instead of images, which perhaps may be the way my neurological connections function in this type of olfactory recollection. He mentioned left-handers may experience things differently than right-handers, so perhaps this is another reason why I wasn’t seeing what most others were seeing. A controlled experiment may get at these types of questions.
I am very interested in hearing what you all think of this research. Please leave your comments below!
“The Neuroscience of Wine Tasting: Unlocking the Tasting Strategies of Genius”. Tim Gaiser, MS. Presentation at the Wine Bloggers Conference August 18th, 2012, Portland, Oregon.
“Eye Movements and NLP” by Robert Dilts: http://www.nlpu.com/Articles/artic14.htm Accessed August 26, 2012.
I am not a health professional, nor do I pretend to be. Please consult your doctor before altering your alcohol consumption habits. Do not consume alcohol if you are under the age of 21. Do not drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly!