harnessing frames of mind: non-linguistic techniques for detecting contrast in olfaction

In the previous post, with the help of an awesome Radio Lab episode, I explored the idea that you cannot smell the color blue until you have a word for it. Language it turns out might be integral to contrast detection. What the Radio Lab program explored with color I tried to re-apply to aroma, particularly with wine.

After thinking about it for a while I was reminded of Howard Gardner’s book that launched a thousand ships: Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Long ago people thought there was no thought without language. Gardner debunked the idea and explored the various intelligences, many of which, like bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, are very much non-linguistic.

What I’m getting at here is that we do not necessarily need language to detect contrast, especially with olfaction, it just turbo charges the process. Many people who simply cannot turn wine into words can still detect a significant amount of contrast. These people are exercising some sort of non-linguistic intelligence. If we could say more about this type of non-linguistic intelligence that people use to smell, maybe we could target and exercise the muscle and help people become better tasters.

Long ago I wrote a post called Advanced Aroma Theory Basics where I explored various methods of categorizing aromas. Different categories, remember, are what we need to put things in to detect contrast. To tell blue from green, you need two categories, one for each color. I came up with various methods of categorizing aromas and each was cross-modal where I grounded olfaction in another sense. I did away with highly subjective symbolic categories like good and bad aromas or male and female aromas and instead had round and angular aromas or sweet and bitter aromas. A lot of my ideas for grounding the metaphors came from books like George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By or Richard Cytowic’s The Man that Tasted Shapes which covers synaesthesia.

I tried to fully elaborate the categories I put aromas into so when I used gustation I employed all the divisions like the olfactory-sweet, olfactory-acid, olfactory-bitter, olfactory-saline and olfactory-umami. There is a lengthy history of calling aromas sweet (especially in poetry) because of the illusion of sensory convergence, but the idea has never been fully elaborated to the other gustatory divisions such as the umami. When I put aromas into shape based categories like round and angular it turned out to be very similar to the work of the ancient Greek, Democritus, or the shape tasting synaesthete that Cytowic encountered. Many words in our wine tasting language such as wet cobble stone might be abstract (and taken for granted) attempts to put aromas into shape related categories. The shape being the irregular surface of the cobble stone. Other methods of categorizing aromas were investigated in the blog post but I won’t go into them.

What I might have really been getting at with the round & angular aroma idea and all the other synaesthetic / cross-modal / psychedelic weirdness was merely applying language to what is thought about non-linguistically with our spatial intelligence (probably among other intelligences). All my eGullet posts, where I made myself cocktails and wrote about them in terms of the categories I was inventing, might have functioned as exercises that turbo charged my non-linguistic ability to detect contrast. So if we want to teach people to taste better, which can also be stated as detect more contrast, besides teaching people to categorize aromas with language defined categories (such as picking out the asparagus in their Sauvignon Blanc), maybe we should also teach people to harness non-linguistic thought–which will unfortunately take language to jump start.

I have become quite the shape taster and I’ve almost thought I was developing synaesthesia, but I’m likely not because it takes so much conscious summoning (being automatic is a defining quality of synaesthesia). I almost feel as though I do not even add language based names to the categories I put aromas in when I taste shapes. I just simply feel it and the shapes unfold somewhat before my mind’s eye.

Is there any room for teaching non-language based contrast detection in wine tasting 101?

A holy grail recommendation engine is turning out to be one that can be used for wine; one which can capture acquired tastes as well as represent and promote diversity in wine. Are any of these ideas necessary for bringing that recommendation engine to life?

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