Friday, December 22, 2006

Wine and the Brain -- Dehumanizing Wine

An interesting thread at Mark Squires' Bulletin Board on, started by Edward Comstock, Oenophile:

Wine and the Brain--dehumanizing wine
At the risk of seeming argumentative, I would rather like to belabor a point raised in a recent thread about the neuroscience of pleasure (as it involves wine drinking), as it is painful to me to see the humanity vacuumed out of such a human enterprise as wine drinking, through the common arguments of the acolytes of bio-reductivism.
These reductive theories of the brain’s need to pursue pleasure and avoid pain suppose that the purpose and essence of the mind is to regulate and represent the sensations and the physical state of the body, such that ideas and mental activity is directed at this physical state. Therefore, it is claimed, my brain is “hard-wired” to want to find 1990 La Tache or the like because it brings me an emotional state which is a response to the physical sensations--the chemical-based impressions--provided by the La Tache. My emotion of “ecstasy” in drinking the La Tache is the same thing as the physical (or neurological) state, a release of dopamine for example, provided from drinking the La Tache, it is claimed.

This idea is used to undermine the idea that critics such as Parker do not describe properties of the wine, but rather personal sensations; and this idea is false. Taste, before it is a physical impression, is a thing in the world--and tasting is a performance, super-charged with ritual and cultural modalities.
And this press release, based on a new paper in Neuron:
How Your Brain Helps You Become A Wine Expert

You don't need to sign up for pricey wine appreciation classes to parse the subtle difference between the black cherry bouquet of a pinot noir and the black currant scent of a cabernet sauvignon. Just pour yourself a couple glasses and sniff. Your brain will quickly help you become a modest oenophile. It's up to you if you want to drink the lesson plan.

A new study by Northwestern University researchers shows that the brain learns to differentiate between similar smells simply through passive experience, shedding light on how we ultimately learn to identify thousands of smells from birth. The study also revealed for the first time how and where the brain modifies and updates information about smells.

Li W, Luxenberg E, Parrish T, Gottfried JA. (2006). Learning to smell the roses: experience-dependent neural plasticity in human piriform and orbitofrontal cortices. Neuron 52:1097-108.

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