Does an evening spent tasting and discussing different wines sound like the ideal night for you? Well, you’re in luck: According to neuroscience, wine tasting can be a better exercise for your brain than even complex math problems. Before you start popping bottles with reckless abandon, however, read this.
Wine Tasting Can Work Your Brain More Than Math
The brain is an incredibly complex organ in our body and controls everything we see, hear, feel, taste, and do. Some activities, like solving math problems, involve certain aspects of the brain. Others, like listening to a piece of music, activate other areas. Wine tasting, especially when done in a specific way, brings in nearly all aspects of our brains’ functionality. (1)
The important thing to note is that wine tasting is not simply drinking wine. Rather, it is a concentrated effort to determine the taste of the wine. It’s about what you see, hear, and smell. It’s also about what you taste first, second, last, and what lingers after you’ve already swallowed the sip. When wine tasting properly, you are paying attention to how the flavor of the wine changes from sip to sip. Finally, the aspect of discussion comes into play: You are actively attempting to describe what it is you are tasting with the people you are tasting it with. (2)
“It involves multiple sensory and motor systems, as well as central conceptual systems for cognition and memory — and systems for emotion and pleasure,” explained Neuroscientists Gordon Shepherd. (1)
How We Perceive Taste
An important aspect to understand how wine tasting can be such a good activity for the brain is understanding how we perceive taste. This in itself is confusing. You see, things like color, feel, and taste don’t actually exist – our brain creates them. Everything in our sensory world (sight, hearing, feeling, taste, smell) is the result of sensory processing that happens in the brain. (1)
Taste is particularly complex because it is made up of several aspects (1):
- Smell: Much of our sense of taste comes through our olfactory glands (aka how we smell).
- Sight: How something looks influences how we think it will taste.
- Touch: When it comes to tasting, this is often referred to as mouthfeel, aka how a food or drink feels in our mouth and on our tongue.
- Muscle and motor systems involved in tasting wine.
- Memory systems: When tasting wine, you usually compare the taste to something you have tasted before. For example, wine might have notes of raspberry or chocolate.
- Hormonal systems: These are involved in the pleasure aspect. If wine is something you enjoy, then there will be a dopamine release in response to this activity.
- Language and communication: The part of the brain that controls these is active during a wine tasting while you attempt to express and discuss the wine.
Shepherd says that even aspects like the weight of the bottle and the sounds you hear throughout the experience will affect your brain’s perception of the flavor. For example, people tend to favor heavier bottles. (3) Also, the sound of a cork coming out of a bottle versus a screw cap will change expectations of flavor. Even the music (and overall ambiance) in the room will affect our brain’s perception of the wine. (4)
A Multisensory Experience
Most other activities engage only one or maybe two senses. Wine tasting engages nearly all of them. It involves distinguishing between different aromas and notes – many of which are subtle and require intense concentration. You are then comparing those to other wines you’ve tasted in the past and other flavors you’ve tasted, or at least imagined that you’ve tasted. (1) For example, Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is often described as having notes of grass. Most of us haven’t actually tasted grass before, but we imagine what it might taste like based on how it smells.
Of course, there are chemical aspects in wine that do contribute to the flavor. The difference is that this only contributes a small amount to the flavor of the wine that we are actually tasting. (1)
“the perception and enjoyment we experience is clearly a construct of the mind that engages the senses and links to our memories,” said Charles Spence, PhD, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. (1)
Taste With Caution
So yes, tasting wine (again, properly, not simply cracking open a bottle and drinking away) can be an excellent stimulation for the brain. That being said, it can’t be forgotten that wine is still alcohol, which has adverse effects on your health. So if you want to reap the brain benefits of wine without doing damage to your health, keep in mind moderation and frequency. Also, you don’t have to actually swallow wine to taste it if you don’t want to.
- “Wine tasting can work the brain more than math, according to neuroscience.” NBC News. Sarah DiGiulio. September 13, 2018.
- “The Taste Of Wine Isn’t All In Your Head, But Your Brain Sure Helps.” NPR. Mark Schatzker. April 3, 2017.
- “The weight of the bottle as a possible extrinsic cue with which to estimate the price (and quality) of the wine? Observed correlations.” Info NA. Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, Charles Spence.
- “Assessing the influence of music on wine perception among wine professionals.” NCBI. Qian (Janice) Wang, Charles Spence. December 2017.