On Jamie Goode’s Wine Tasting with the Triune Brain

triune brainJamie Goode’s recent post on wine tasting and the triune brain is theoretically suspect but practically insightful.

The triune brain refers to a theory from the 1960’s that posited a three-part hierarchical structure for the human brain: the ancient reptilian brain that operates the drives, instincts, and appetites; the limbic system which enables emotions; and the cortex which is responsible for cognition, language, and controls the more ancient parts of the brain when our psychology is functioning properly.

As Jamie points out, this view of brain structure is widely discredited by neuroscience:

Modern brain science contradicts the triune model, with its strictly linear, hierarchical manner of information transfer. While it might be convenient to divide the brain up and attribute certain functions to specific areas, there’s a lot of interconnectivity in the brain, with signals being sent one way and then back again, and multiple areas participating in the same tasks. Also, MacLean’s model places reason over emotion, and there’s every reason to believe that emotion is involved in decision making and shouldn’t be relegated like this.

Nevertheless, he advocates a form of wine tasting that utilizes the concept of the triune brain: “Do we taste wine with different bits of our brain? This is an appealing idea.”

He argues that our “base instincts can be roused by the right wine.” Wine can touch us emotionally. Smells “move the emotions,” trigger memories, and provoke unconscious decisions. According to this theory, all of this occurs prior to the neo-cortex and our language skills interrogating the wine, which leads to some practical advice about how we should taste.

I propose that even though the triune brain has been discarded by neuroscience, that we should keep the concept, and start doing triune tastings. Don’t rush to the thinking bit – the neocortex. Begin in the reptilian brain and engage deeply with the sensation of the flavour, without turning it into words. Dwell there a while, among your base instincts! Imagine you as a dinosaur. Roar a little if you have to.

Then the mammalian brain, the limbic system, can be engaged. We can dwell in the emotion prompted by the wine. This is a good place to be. Again, it requires resisting the urge to rush to words and thinking actively about the wine. Rather, we dwell in the experience and are sensitive to our bodies: where do we feel the experience of the wine? How do we enjoy it? How does it make us feel.

Then, we can jump to our neocortex, and bring all this together. Triune tasting.

Jamie is right that we respond viscerally to wines and that wines “move the emotions.” I devote several chapters to this point in Beauty and the Yeast, although I think it is not only aromas that move us but mouthfeel and a wine’s movement on the palate.

However, theoretically, I don’t think the triune brain is helpful and I don’t think we taste with different parts of the brain. Our emotions and instincts are already coded by language, and cognition is always working to classify experience, just as emotions and drives continuously disrupt our thought processes and influence us unconsciously. In other words, we are unlikely to have feelings that are not already structured by language and concepts just as we are unlikely to have thoughts that are not prompted by our feeling states. There is no way to “begin with the reptilian brain” and then engage with the limbic system before cognition kicks in.

Because emotions (as opposed to moods) require beliefs—the difference between anger and fear is primarily a belief about whether you’re in danger or offended—to experience the way a wine emotionally moves us will involve active thinking and reflection.

But as a practical matter, his tasting advice is good when he advocates that “we dwell in the experience and are sensitive to our bodies: where do we feel the experience of the wine? How do we enjoy it? How does it make us feel?” I describe this dwelling in the experience differently. In Beauty and the Yeast, I argue that in appreciating a wine we should suspend judgement, avoid thinking about whether it’s the type of wine we prefer or whether it’s typical of its type. We should avoid too quickly employing the categories and tasting norms of the wine community and, instead, give in to the wine without preconception, allowing the wine to trigger whatever thoughts, imaginings, or feelings it can generate.

These feelings will involve thought and language, which are inescapable. And imaginative language can often help us understand our feelings.

What matters is that we avoid thoughts or language which distract from feelings or treats them as irrelevant, as our current approach to wine tasting tends to do. Viewing wine as an expressive medium that engages our emotions is the next step in learning to fully appreciate what wine has to offer.

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