Emerging Science Conflicts with Traditional Views of Taste and Smell

science of smellThe view that wine and food lack the cognitive dimension characteristic of genuine aesthetic appreciation is getting more difficult to defend.

For much of the history of aesthetics, taste and smell have been relegated to the sidelines. In contrast to vision and hearing, taste and smell were thought to be too subjective and too dependent on pleasure and emotion to warrant close aesthetic attention. But most importantly, according to the traditional view, taste and smell lacked a cognitive dimension. Our capacity for thought and reflection played little role in our appreciation of food and wine, on this view, because our response was an immediate, visceral liking or not liking rather than a considered judgment based on criteria.

This view has been under attack more recently in books such as Carolyn Korsmeyer’s Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy, Burnham and Skilleas’ The Aesthetics of Wine, as well as my own work American Foodie and Beauty and the Yeast.

Happily, this revised view of the importance of taste and smell is now receiving considerable support from science, which has also begun to explore the question of whether smell and taste have a cognitive dimension.

Although  there are considerable controversies on the topic, some of the literature in neuroscience shows that there is no clear distinction between perception and cognition. Perceptions are deeply influenced by beliefs and the distinction between perception and judging cannot be clearly determined especially in sensory modalities other than vision.

Through the study of how the brain represents flavors and odors, it’s clear olfaction is enormously complex and sophisticated. This study by Barwich demonstrates that knowledge of wine, food, and perfume shapes what we perceive so much so that trained smelling differs significantly from naïve smelling.

Brown, et al develop evidence that the neurological systems we use to appraise and appreciate artworks appears to have evolved from our capacity to assess objects necessary for survival such as food. And this paper from Skov suggests that aesthetic objects such as art, faces, or landscapes are appreciated using the same neurobiological mechanisms in the orbito-frontal cortex as the appreciation of food, drinks, or money. He argues:

Specifically, neuroscientific evidence suggests that aesthetic appreciation is not a distinct neurobiological process assessing certain objects, but a general system, centered on the mesolimbic reward circuit, for assessing the hedonic value of any sensory object.

It is interesting to note the contrasting argumentative strategies here. Much of the aforementioned work in philosophy and some of the studies in neurobiology indicate that the appreciation of food and wine is as cognitively complex and sophisticated as the appreciation of art or music. But the studies by Brown and Skov, although they don’t refute that claim, take a different approach.  Rather than showing that food and wine meet the lofty aesthetic standards set by art and music, they suggest that the aesthetic appreciation of art and music is based on the same systems of pleasure, reward, and emotion as our appreciation of food and wine. One strategy elevates food and wine; the other plays down the distinctiveness of the visual arts and music.

In any case, both strategies arrive at the same point. The traditional distinction between the fine arts and the crafts of winemaking or cooking cannot be based on some fundamental difference between taste and smell on the one hand, and the allegedly more cognitively rich sense of vision and audition on the other.

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