Your Brain on Wine

Annie Murphy Paul’s opinion piece in the March 17th New York Times unravels our brain’s intricate interconnectedness by linking fiction and neuroscience. In “Your Brain on Fiction,” she details how reading words like “lavender” or “cinnamon” cross stimulate both the language centers and olfactory regions of our brains. Lines like “The singer had a velvet voice” tickle and arouse the sensory cortex whereas the sentence, “The singer had a pleasing voice” does not. In other words, reading metaphors of texture and touch or similes of scent ignites the same neural synapses as when we actually grasp sandpaper or inhale lilacs. Paul writes, “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering in real life.” The research she cites hails from lofty academic institutions like Emory University and the University of Language Dynamics in France. But we lovers of good fiction knew this already. If you’ve ever cried during a novel or spent a sleepless night obsessing over a fictional character’s bad choices, you’ve experienced firsthand the enchanted allure of prose. For me, the scent of honeysuckle is indivisibly bound to the fictional character Quentin Compton. That distinct, sticky, floral smell still evokes Quentin’s complicated, relationship to his sister, although I first read The Sound and the Fury over20 years ago. I suppose this is the inverse silhouette of Paul’s intention. Here the actual smell of honeysuckle invokes both my olfactory cortex and brain’s language centers. But the intent is the same. Expressive writing sticks.

Do you suppose the same neural pathways are stimulated by wine writing? How might mediocre wine writing compare to metaphor and adjective heavy wine descriptions? After all, wine notes are all about aromas, flavors, and lofty comparisons. I’ve read plenty of wine reviews comparing pinot noir to pine needles, damp earth, mushrooms, and trees. What if instead the reviewer had written the pinot “evokes the prickly, sap-sticky pine needles of an evergreen forest floor.” Would our enjoyment of that first sip be more intense? If our brain recruits not only our language centers but also olfactory (smell), memory, and sensory cortex (texture) might our drinking experience be richer or more nuanced? Does just reading about that wine rouse our brain as fully as actually drinking it? MRI studies suggest yes. These imaging studies map multiple regions of our brain responding to written stimuli, quantifying scientifically “why the experience of reading can feel so alive.” Sure the cozy smell of chocolate chip cookies makes my mouth water. Reading about it just makes me hungry and grumpy.

And how about a played-out metaphor? Paul notes that some idiomatic vernacular, like “a rough day,” is so overused that your brain processes the slang like any other verbage. The extra sensory textural punch is lost. I’m sure the same holds true for those generic pinot descriptors like “ripe cherry/berry.” Your brain codes those wine notes as linguistic spam, just another bottle of juicy blackberry pie and huckleberry brambles. Still it would be fascinating to set up an experiment that tracked which brain regions are stimulated by richly compelling (aromatic and textural) wine vocabulary compared to passive, generic wording. After reading the wine notes, you’d give test subjects a taste test. You’d offer the blinded taste testers two identical glasses of wine, each paired with very different tasting notes. I wonder how many blind taste testers would correctly identify both glasses as being filled with the same stuff?

By the way, if my super compelling tasting notes leave you craving a glass of pinot, don’t blame me, it’s your brain.