A glass of wine can change your mind.
The person is Ann-Sophie Barwich. It is possible to become an expert in anything, whether it is wine tasting or mathematics.
Wine tasting isn’t just because critics spit $50 mouthfuls into a bucket. They can sound like they are speaking in a foreign language. Wine is said to have roundness, generosity, and depth. Their aromas are similar to berry, with hints of tobacco, leather, and plum, as well as berrylike aromas. The other aroma labels don’t sound like they belong in food.
Expertise is more about observing things that are difficult for novices to understand. Through training, experts are able to see, taste, smell, and hear things that the rest of us can’t. This became clear to me after I had a conversation with an expert winemaker in the valley.
Wine experts waxing is hard to believe. When I find someone I respect writing about a wine that dithered in the glass, I cringe. When I hear someone talk about a wine that is hard to drink, I turn into a person who is very unforgiving. Don’t watch out after that. Can they not be in a glass of wine?
Most of our brains have the ability to compute, but wine has hundreds of aroma compounds. Sommeliers can identify compounds in a complex mixture by using their sensory spotlight. They have trained themselves to identify individual aromas and aroma patterns. The best wine experts can identify a vintage down to its specific vineyard and even year with a virtuosity that can occasionally take less than a minute.
People think wine tasting is a scam. Wine tasting is a science, but sometimes words get in the way of it being taken seriously. We hope gasoline-smelling wines don’t contain petrol, but they often share compounds with another substance with a recognizable aroma. The brain of a sommelier learns how to link categories of sensory experience with specific chemical compounds. A compound with the smell of petrol is found in aged Riesling. Carotenoids are found in many foods, including grapes, and they break down at higher temperatures. Many odd wine descriptions, including rubber hose and cat’s piss, can be identified by expert noses. The compound pyrazine is found in Sauvignon Blanc.
The brain of a mathematician and a sommelier are very similar. The density of white and gray matter increases in designated areas. The acquisition of expertise makes parts of the brain thicker. One of the most prominent changes in the density of gray matter is found in the superior frontal gyrus, an area that is linked with self-awareness and laughter. In comparison, changes in sommeliers’ brain volume were found in the right insula and entorhinal cortex, areas involved in memory processing. Changes in neural density give the areas enhanced cortical connections and signaling speed, as the synaptic connections by which neurons communicate become more tightly packed. Increased neural density leads to dedicated specialized areas of the brain better integrating and orchestrating neural activity. Expertise of any kind leads to a more sophisticated communication architecture of the brain. It makes sommeliers a knowledgeable dinner-party guest if they acquire this skillset. The structure and activity of their brains are changed by it.
Do sommeliers get better at smelling themselves, like in the study of Hippocampi in London cab drivers, or do they just memorize patterns? Both are the answer. The skill of a sommelier is more than just a method of memory, it is also a method of smell. The ability to be more receptive to aromas in a mixture is enhanced by training.
The paradoxes are here. Experts use less of their brain when it grows. The more proficient you are at wine tasting, the less activity you will see in your brain’s fMRI recording. How are you using your brain if you are processing more information? If you compare your brain to an athlete’s body, it’s less puzzling. If your body is trained to lift weights frequently, you will need to put in less effort to lift weights. According to the neuroscientist Christof Koch, some brain activities become automatized and look like zombie agents with practice.
The surprise is that sensory expertise modifies your experience of reality, not just on a cognitive level, but also consciousness itself. The scientists observed the brain stem of experts but not novices. This finding suggests a difference in how sensory information is integrated into the brain activity of experts and novices. Fine tuning your brain to its input and having it reorganize its neural story to match will make a difference in the quality of your experience. The acquisition of expertise makes parts of the brain thicker.
We don’t trust sommeliers’ abilities. Our understanding of the senses is one of the reasons for that. René Descartes, the influential source of so many misled thoughts about the mind, claimed that you couldn’t trust your senses. It is impossible to establish a difference in the experience of dreams and reality because of the unreliability of perception, he believed. You can control the quality and content of your experience by thinking while drinking wine.
Descartes was wrong. Our senses do not tell us what is happening. They are built with experience in mind. Different people see, taste, hear, smell, and feel the world differently because of our engagement with the world. The wine tastes different to all of us even though we have the same bottle. The dress is both dark and light. I heard someone else, not someone like Yanny.
Descartes was skeptical about whether our experience was a hallucination or a real thing. You can’t trust your senses to reflect reality if you don’t refer to what you see and hear or smell. The demons are said to have a strong odor. The only assurance of our material existence was the use of pure analytic reason. All other truths must follow the irrefutable truth.
Expertise broadens your perspective, not only on the particular thing you specialize in. The benefit of developing a cognitive meta-skill is learning how to learn. It is possible to approach learning about other areas you may not be familiar with with a skill like this. It’s possible to branch out to other things without getting lost in the process. Experience develops with knowledge. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “When you are genuinely interested in one thing, it will always lead to something else.”
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