Making wine is a bit disreputable. People give up respectable jobs with six-figure incomes to root around in vineyards in the morning and clean out barrels in the afternoon, all to make a beverage that most people treat as an alcohol delivery system. Serving and selling wine is even more disreputable. Somms spend years memorizing wine facts just so they can listen to ignorant, unruly customers rant, and for wages that would disappoint an Uber driver. Wine writers are of course the most disreputable since we mostly work for free writing stuff than no one reads. Oh, and all of us in the wine trade are accused of being snobs so we have to tip-toe around social situations hiding our obsession while pretending to be interested in football or film.
The saving grace? We all get to taste wine. And that just makes us smarter, according to neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd:
From the first sight of the wine bottle to manipulating the wine in your mouth and then swallowing it, there is a ‘tremendous range of sensory, motor and central brain systems involved in a wine tasting’, says Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd.
Taken all together, these processes involve more brain activity than listening to music or solving a complicated maths problem, he argues in his book, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine….Molecules in the wine stimulate thousands of taste and odour receptors, according to a report on Shepherd’s book on the NPR website, ‘sending a flavour signal to the brain that triggers massive cognitive computation involving pattern recognition, memory, value judgement, emotion and pleasure’.
Unlike a maths problem – which requires a limited amount of brain activity – assessing wine engages multiple sensory systems, including seeing, smelling and tasting.
Shepherd’s findings come after a study was reported last September in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal, arguing that Master Sommeliers require so much mental agility to make the grade that the sensory part of their brains becomes physically thicker.
I wish I had taken up wine tasting before going to graduate school. Perhaps I would have solved the hard problem of consciousness or the problem of moral knowledge by now.
Mr. Shepherd, by the way, does appear to be quite smart: He knows how to flatter his audience.
Gordon Shepard’s insights about “neuroenology” are thought-provoking, leaving us with a host of interesting questions. There is no doubt that tasting wine stimulates important brain regions, which in turn generate a significant amount of brain activity. Other engaging activities–sexual and musical–also “turbo-charge” the brain and create innumerable chemical reactions via neurotransmitters as well as trigger vital cognitive functions.
My question is this: How does the tasting of wine make us smarter? Does it increase our intelligence by degree or by kind? In other words, how rapidly does it make us smarter–is it gradual (and negligible) or can the results occur within weeks or months?
Is the progress measurable? Are there statistical averages or is improvement (getting smarter) something that varies greatly on an individual basis? And what about combining wine tasting (as we often do) with other brain-boosting activities, including the eating of foods which contain many rich, dynamic flavors? Does tasting quality wines while dining with background music and engaged in good conversation have a synergistic effect and super-size the injection of added smartness? (And if the music and conversation are sub-par, can this reverse the brain-boosting power of the wine tasting?)
Shepard’s thesis is enticing and I am compelled to read his book. And, you are quite right, the flattery behind his claim is a nice perk. My robust wine drinking habits will be in full force in the coming months. But even if I were to adopt the most optimistic attitude possible, knowing that my wine-inspired brain will be improving in the months to follow, I know my intellectual quest has expired. Vitis vinifera and all it sublime powers will never drive me to demystify consciousness or the paradox of free will.
I started drinking wine ages long before I tackled the “hard problem”. The “statute of limitations” has arrived in full swing for me and my feckless attempts to solve philosophical problems.
But, for those late-bloomers who came onto the wine scene after exploring fundamental problems of the universe, there is good news. If Shepard is right, and he may very well be, a good brain, like a good wine, needs time to age before it can reveal and express its ineffable mystery. Hold fast! It is just a matter of time when your next bottle of Brunello will transform you into a modern-day Prometheus. Consciousness and moral knowledge will be explained. Bottoms up!
Well said Steve. But if you drink enough wine you can believe you’ve solved the hard problem. It happens every weekend