wine – wine – wine – open mine eyes…

Here’s an interesting experiment:

Ask a group of people to taste two bottles of wine whilst blind. One wine costs £70 a bottle and another costs £10 a bottle. You’ll find that, whilst blind, there is little correlation between the wine’s taste and its cost. i.e. an equal number of blind tasters will prefer the £10 to the £70 bottle.

Now repeat the experiment with another group of people but this time don’t blindfold them. Instead label the bottles according to price. So you have two bottles labeled £70 and £10 and ask the volunteers to taste the wines and give their preference. Most people generally expect the higher priced wine to taste better, so will rate the £70 wine better than the £10 wine – and this is the fun part – they’ll do this even if BOTH WINES IN THE TWO BOTTLES being tasted are the same and actually cost £70 a bottle!

So, even if the two wines are physically the same, and if all you tell the tasters is that one is much pricier than the other – they’ll say they prefer the taste of the pricier one.

Now repeat the above experiment and hook the tasters to a fMRI machine. This is a machine that allows you to visually see areas of brain activity – live. The resulting images after performing the above tasting test show that, when (and ONLY WHEN) tasters know the price of the wine, and after they taste it – there is increased activity in an additional area of the brain behind the eyes called the orbito frontal cortex, a region that is known to be associated with the experience of pleasure. Remember this additional region only lights up when they are told the price. It doesn’t light up if they are not told the price of the wine they are tasting.

What is this telling us?

It’s telling us that although the two wines are not physically different – the people tasting them experience A REAL taste difference in their brains. Just being told that a wine is more expensive makes it really taste better to them!

So how can a brain conclude that one beverage tastes better than another when the beverages are physically the same?

How is that possible?

The naive view is that sensory signals, such as taste, travel from the sense organ to the region of the brain where they are experienced in a more or less straightforward fashion. But the truth; though you are not aware of it, is that when you run wine over your tongue, you don’t just taste its chemical composition – you also taste its price…

The evidence is that if you are told that a wine is more expensive than another (even if it really isn’t and is actually the same as the other), and you taste it, an additional area of the brain lights up. The price of the wine alters the taste in your brain. Yes literally in your brain!

The real lesson has nothing to do with wine or any other beverage. What is true of wine is also true of all the other ways we experience the world. Both direct, explicit aspects of life (such as chemical composition of wine or food) and indirect, implicit aspects (such as the price or the brand or the packaging) conspire to CREATE our mental experience. The key word here is “create”. Our brains are not simply recording a taste or other experience, they are creating it.

Thus the universal taste equation is as follows:

The actual taste of wine to you = (signal from your tongue about its chemical composition) + (information you receive from your eyes or ears about its price)

We like to think that, when we pass up one guacamole in favour of another, or when we pick one girlfriend over another, or when we choose one laptop/detergent/vacation/wife/job over another – that we understand the principal factors that influenced us. The truth is that beneath the bonnet of our brains, there is a vast subconscious city – that we have no access to. As a result, many of our most basic assumptions about ourselves, the world, people and society, are false.

Over the course of the next few posts – join me, on a terrifying and frankly mind-opening journey – into the parts of yourself, you don’t reach.

Or, as in the words of that old Heineken TV advert: ‘Heineken – refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’

I’ll drink to that buddy!

One thought on “wine – wine – wine – open mine eyes…

  1. This is fascinating. This will need to be worked into economic theory of utility and demand curves, because they are obviously not a straightforward diminishing marginal returns relationship in light of this research.

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