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?

Turning the Sky Blue and Turning on Contrast Detection in Olfaction with Language

The sky isn’t blue until it is.  If you didn’t already catch this show on WNYC’s Radio Lab I’d start there.

The hosts along side Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass,  look at Homer’s the Iliad and Odyssey and investigate why the color blue is never mentioned. They even take it back to 19th century British prime minister & Homer-ophile William Gladstone who made the first inquiry.  Gladstone was intrigued by Homer’s use of strange colors for simple objects which he thought to be at odds with Homer’s acutely perceptive style. There was the wine dark sea, wine colored oxen, violet colored sheep in the cyclops caves, iron was also violet.  Honey and faces pale with fear were both green.  Homer’s visual world was very different from Gladstone’s.

Later in the 19th century antiquarian text specialist Lazerus Geiger took a stab at the mystery and came to the conclusion from witnessing similar color phenomenons in the ancient texts of nearly all other languages that even though blue is a primary color, languages do not tend to create a word for a color until they can produce the color.  In the development of language blue comes last because blue is so rare in nature and blue dyes are hard to create.  The Egyptians with their indigo were an exception.

The show then turns to Jules Davidoff, a professor of neuropsychology.  He shows twelve colored squares to a Namibian tribe (his stand in for Homer)  with no word for blue and asks “which one is different?”  Eleven of the tiles were green and only one was distinctly blue.  They had remarkable trouble figuring out which one is different. I see this as validating Marshal McLuhan’s idea in Understanding Media that literacy (of which there are many types and many subsections) facilitates fragmentation and allows us to break things down and deconstruct them. Fragmentation also leads to acting without reacting (detachement) which I’ve discussed a little bit in relation to flavor literacy. Being more literate in flavor may help us enjoy eating things that are acquired tastes and typically healthier as well as resist cravings.

Naturally this Radio Lab program turns to explaining the color of the sky which to Homer was not blue.  The program turns back to Guy Deutscher who experimented on his young daughter who was just learning to speak.  Deutscher teaches her all the colors of everything around her but never the sky. When asked what color it is in the beginning she cannot say. When eventually she can, she says it is white.  Finally she says it is blue but then flip flops for a while between white. After a while she settles on blue but it takes a while and it was never innate and obvious.

In my adventures with sensory science I’ve noticed that all the senses more or less follow the same rules. If vision and color are subject to this phenomenon where language is almost requisite for parsing sensations so too is olfaction and probably in exactly the same way.  Gordon M. Sheperd validates many of these parallels between the senses in Neurogastronomy. What is funny about olfaction is that for many people they wake up middle aged, they finally develop an interest in wine (or actually smelling whatever else they drink) but find their nose is in the state of that child that cannot determine if the sky is blue or white or just a colorless void.  They might even be like the Namibian tribe that cannot detect contrast in the green and blue tiles.  They have no words for what they smell so they say “all wine just tastes the same to me” (but maybe it does?).  The path and development of their other senses has been completely taken for granted.

In Homer’s world, fragmentation of color was poor relative to today, but some people believe their olfactory sense was more acute.  They hadn’t yet sanitized the world of its natural odors and the use of fragrance was rampant.  To get along in that intense olfactory world of good and bad aromas it would take detachment only possible by a well cultivated language.  A thousand years after Homer, in the Aeneid, the willow was acrid (a cross-modal euphonic metaphor!), probably referring to the subtle aroma of willow honey while today we only apply the acrid (Ngram) descriptor to extremes like bleach and ammonia.  Going back just a few hundred years, olfaction used to be refined enough that the aroma of cloves and cumin were bitter while now we can only apply such labels to extremes like wormwood and quinine.  Our currently atrophied olfactory world, which is widely constrained by our lack of language and categories to organize aromas likely parallels the constraints on Homer’s ability to parse and recognize color.  McLuhan said adding new media (the extensions of man!) would change our sense ratios.

In the last post I hypothesize that many aromas we perceive are in part illusions and I still stand by that. Completing gestalts with recollection is definitely a layer of aroma perception.  Another significant layer is the importance of language on our ability to parse aromas even at the simplest levels.

Many new wine drinkers have trouble recognizing oak. It takes a highly abstracted (over oaked) example to teach the typical new wine drinker what oak is so that they have a category for it.  Speaking of categories, when use of the wormwood hand sanitizer changed the threshold of perception of aromas in the wine it may parallel the twelve colored tiles experiment.  Every time I applied the hand sanitizer I thought “wormwood!” and had a well practiced category that was easily retrievable.  I may have noticed the aroma disproportionately because the category was at the fingertips of my recollection.  Funny enough, I did not smell wormwood, I smelt something more like yarrow flowers and recollection did not complete the aroma like I said can happen in the last post.  I do have unique experience with yarrow as well and other aromas in the olfactory-bitter category after experimenting widely in absinthe making (the recipe is out of date, I settled on all yerba mate!).  I wonder how other people would experience these things that do not have my unique stance.

Wine scholars put big emphasis on turning wine into words but no one really pin points why.  When you start to put big emphasis on language people sometimes shoot you down and say its not necessary, but do they smell the blue tile!?

And what categories can help me detect contrast and smell as many different tiles as possible? I champion categorizing olfaction in terms of gustation with the olfactory-sweet, olfactory-umami, olfactory-bitter, etc.  Those five categories can replace an entire unabridged dictionary of object comparisons (cherry, cassis, goose berry, eucalyptus).

Barb Stuckey emphasized language in her excellent primer on new flavor theory called Taste What You’re Missing.  Really nailing the edutainment I can’t seem to master, Stuckey explains the individual facets of the multisensory perception of flavor to help develop categories for beginning tasters.  Her idea is awareness of categories will help you “taste what you’re missing” and I whole heartedly agree.

Another method of developing categories that facilitate contrast detection is Anne Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel.  Taken directly from the why use it section of her website: “Novice tasters often complain that they ‘cannot smell anything’ or can’t think of a way to describe the aroma of wine. They don’t have the words! Fortunately, it is very easy to train our noses and brains to associate descriptive terms with specific aroma notes in wine.”  If an organized wheel of categories is placed in front of someone it may help them smell the color blue.

All this contrast enhancement by language supported category formation is making me contemplate the auditory sense.  Is there more to be heard? It feels like there is no way I’m not hearing the color blue.  A great edutaining book on the neuroscience of music I read long ago is This is Your Brain on Music.  The author is a sound engineer turned neuroscientist and at one point I remember him telling the tale of how he educated and developed his ear to hear the unique things few other people can hear. Sound engineers have sound boards with tons of controls which are essentially categories. The more categories they are aware of, and can abstract (through turning a dial) to reinforce the properties of, the more contrast they can likely detect.  We function fairly well in this world with an auditory sense that in most cases gets no special training, but there is still always an amazing potential for enhancement.

Next time you encounter a glass of a wine ponder what beautiful and extraordinary aromas might lurk just beyond the reach of your words.

strange olfactory phenomena: adventures in contrast detection

The other day I went to the Ruby Wines annual wine tasting at the Harvard club.  It is a great event and one of my favorites for the big annuals that our distributors put on.  I was only able to taste about 30 wines before I had to leave for work.

Two of the wines I tasted had the strange, potent, distinct, and lovely aroma of bitter field flowers.  For a more specific object comparison I’d say Yarrow flowers.

This was strange to me because I’ve a tasted a lot of wine in my day and never come across this expression with this much intensity.  One wine was a dry white Anjou Chenin Blanc that I was unfamiliar with while the other was the latest vintage of Cos’ Cersuolo from Sicily which I’ve had numerous times.  I asked the always awesome Brad Groper of Domaine Select who was pouring the wine if there was anything unusual about the vintage and he said no and that they’ve been keeping a good average.

Here’s the kicker. I’ve been using my wormwood aromatized hand sanitizer that I developed as an aroma teaching tool.  In the last month I’ve had repeated exposure to the aroma over the course of my shifts at work.  The aroma I experienced disproportionately in the two wines was not Wormwood, but very close two it.  Wormwood and Yarrow both could be said as having a connection to the same gustatory division (bitterness) and if you created an imaginary spatial scale they would lay very close to each other.  Could repeated exposure to the experimental hand sanitizer have changed contrast detection for me in wines?

Way back when, I wrote a post that tried to outline the difference between my banana and your banana and how we experience and construct reality.  I was partially inspired by Leonard Koren’s fantastic book Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean: Ten Definitions.  My theory was that acquired tastes and differences in metabolized dissonance may lead us to believe that each of us constructs reality when eating very differently.  I thought we all could compare intensities of stimuli similarly enough, but simply we just could not agree on enjoying them (valence).  Maybe my bizarre experience here shows how repeated exposure to a stimulus can significantly effect contrast detection.  If you need a primer on tricks that exploit changes in contrast detection check out Omar Pasha’s Black Art Theatre.  I hypothesized a while ago that a change in contrast detection similar to what was experienced in black art theater is a large part of how reactive wine pairings work where contrast detection changes and after images react with current stimuli.  It was just a blog post and I didn’t get to fully explore the ideas because I don’t deal with pairings at work anymore, but an astounding amount of people checked out the post.  No one seems to have adopted the theory yet… (…to be too far ahead of your time like Van Gogh!)

Well to use all these ideas in a beautiful context, when I get recruited to work at a lux, progressive, budget-less, overachieving dining establishment, I’m going to mail people bottles of experimental hand sanitizer with their reservations.  When they expose themselves the aroma (who doesn’t use hand sanitizer?) we can proceed to do a tasting of wines from our catalog that enjoy marked changes in contrast detection.  This will demonstrate the highly subjective nature of our construction of “reality”.  The great Nabakov referred to reality as the one work that should always be in quotes!

Astute readers will be comparing this strange olfactory phenomenon to Francois Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art & Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor.  He seems to have a new edition of the book which makes the content seem less about food & wine interaction and more about flavor theory in general.  Chartier posited the idea that reactive wine pairings were the product of matching aroma molecules in the food & wine.  I was not too keen on his idea.  But in this strange case we are probably also matching molecules from the conditioned stimulus with the wine.  The big difference is the amount of time and repetition.  Could pairings as Chartier envisioned become effected by this same type of contrast detection change or could they be more likely governed by others such as in my Nutritional Preference Theory?  We need more minds on this puzzle!


A text that explains the nitty-gritty of changes in olfactory contrast detect is Gordon M. Shepard’s Neurogastronomy which is astoundingly cool and I wrote a little bit about it here.

For those collecting olfactory illusions, another that I’ve come across lately was experienced when drilling colored pieces of plastic.  Molecules in the plastic are very similar to sucrose and somehow elicit a sensation of olfactory-sweetness (an illusion in its own right), but when combined with the color, drilling the cherry-red plastic can make you think you are smelling cherries.  The black plastic can be like licorice.  This leads me to believe that many object comparisons we make when tasting wine come from experiencing very general gestalts that trigger very specific memories.  A ghost arises from the memories and covers the very general gestalt that is hard to un-summon. Color and olfactory-sweetness end up being enough to summon a very vivid phantom aroma of cherry. Perception ends up being the fusion of our real sensory experience with our past recollections.  And the distribution of the two influences varies greatly and to some degree can be wielded.


I have been pondering the world of experts who might have unique thresholds of perception for aromas they are trained in.  A realm where unique contrast detection abilities might develop is food spoilage.  Kitchen workers who handle large amounts of food might train themselves on spoilage aromas and be able to detect them when a non-cook cannot.  This is a very valuable skill for obvious reasons and it seems as though it would be useful to know more about it.  Maybe kitchens should intentionally spoil small amounts of food and then train their line cooks on the aromas? That way they can spot them at lower thresholds in the future.

A Theory of Wine-food Interaction

These idea were more recently explored again here.

Unraveling the nature of wine pairings is tricky stuff. I’m sort of out of the game these days because I do not work with a tasting menu anymore (or even a changing menu for that matter). When this blog started I had posted quite a few accounts of pairing wines with certain dishes. We did quite a lot of tasting menus back at Dante and I was fortunate to do a lot of eating and drinking of them.

At various times in the past I’ve mentioned some ideas that governed the mechanics of food and wine interaction such as sensory after images (they are harnessed for many magic tricks) and the change in contrast detection exploited by “black art” theater.

I’ve also discussed reward systems (read this Wired.com article first) that govern the construction of our reality when perceiving food. For example, sweetness can suppress the perception of bitterness when experienced at the same time. Bitterness is seen by the body as a negative and is therefore harmonically dissonant (a taste for bitterness can be acquired, of course and my theory is that the acquiring of something so attentional is related to anxiety). If you tasted Campari before it was sweetened you would probably spit it out, but after Campari is sweetened by the producer, the perception of bitterness changes markedly. Our body’s reward system recognizes that though bitter, Campari is also redeemingly sweet and therefore nutritious which is why it constructs reality in way that makes the bitterness less dissonant.

At times, food & beverage interactions seem like black art theater (watch the video linked above) where comparisons between flavor divisions result in changes in contrast detection among other divisions (harmonically or inharmonically) while at other times interactions seems like they are governed by nutritional preference or warnings.

It might be possible to classify reactive pairings in two ways: nutritional preference pairings and “black art” contrast pairings. It is useful to revisit Dorneburg and Pages’ amazing text on wine pairing What To Drink With What You Eat and consider these two divisions.

Why does a dessert wine always have to be sweeter than a dessert? When pairing dessert wines with sweet foods, we want nutritional preference to go to the dessert wine, therefore it needs to be slightly sweeter. If the wine is not as sweet, reality will be constructed to show preference for the food and the dessert wine will be presented by the mind as thinner and stripped away of its richness.

“With a simple apple dessert like apple pie, Sauternes is a soft and sweet accompaniment. But if you serve the same apple pie with caramel sauce, it makes the wine taste flat.” -Madeline Triffon  from What To Drink With What You Eat a.k.a. “WTDWWYE”

Madeline’s results may be because the caramel sauce is sweeter than the wine and our reward system favors it over the Sauternes.

“Having birthday cake or wedding cake with a brut Champagne toast is horrifying! If the dessert is sweeter than the wine, it makes the wine taste drier. My favorite all-purpose sweet wine is Moscato d’Asti.” -Madeline Triffon from WTDWWYE

Let us consider another scenario: port can come after bitter chocolate, but black espresso which is also bitter like the chocolate cannot come after port. Nutritional preference will dictate how reality is constructed and the second stimulus will either be flattered and harmonically enhanced or ridiculed by the mind. When black espresso is consumed after something sweet and more nutritious, the bitterness is dramatically emphasized in our construction of reality.

Our body warns us of all sorts of things with its construction of reality, but why? Some seem so innocent.

Why does increasing temperature lower the threshold of perception of alcohol making it more apparent in hot drinks?

Why does lowering temperature such as chilling a red wine, lower the threshold of perception of tannin? The same happens when intensely oaked whiskeys are chilled. What are we being warned about?

Pairings related to black art style changes in contrast detection might not work the same as pairings related to nutritional preference (I’m rethinking this because nutritional preference seems to always linger).

The black on black of black art contrast pairings is typically the greatest attentional feature common to both the food and the beverage. In the case of wine and food that feature is typically acidity while in the case of dark chocolate and espresso that feature is bitterness. Scanning through WTDWWYE, most all the highest regarded pairings are related to matching acidity. When the major attentional feature is matched, contrast detection between other features is augmented and they are “elevated” to quote commonly used pairing language. In best case scenarios, an aroma from the food is “brought back into focus” and seemingly superimposed over the wine. Typically foods that do this have a significant sensory after image which may prove related to nutritional value.

**** I will analyze these when i get around to it.

holy grail pairings to ponder from WTDWWYE:

almonds : manzanilla sherry

asparagus : sauvignon blanc

ribs : zinfandel the sauce on ribs often has sugar, but the illusion of sweetness in the aroma of the zinfandel might be enough to create nutritional preference in the wine.

biscotti : vin santo the wine is sweeter than the biscotti which tips nutrional preference in its favor.  the aromas are also not too disparate which might influence the reaction.

cassoulet : tannic red wine pairing tannin and fat could be less a pairing that happens in the mind due to nutritional preference and more of a pairing that actually happens on the tongue as is the classic explanation.  within the mind though,  the tannins could end and provide relief from the cloying sensory afterimage of the fat.  i’ll have to ponder this one next time i find a really tannic wine.

caviar : champagne

ceviche : sauvignon blanc

charcuterie : beaujolais

fresh goat cheese : sancerre this pairing features an acid/acid comparison which induces a change in contrast detection similar to black art.

muenster cheese : gewurztraminer (esp. low-acid fruity)

roquefort blue cheese : sauternes

stilton british cow’s milk blue : barley wine

chocolate : banyul’s or port

choucroute (sauerkraut) : alsatian reisling or german kabinett

clams : muscadet

corn : chardonnay, buttery oaky california

crab : riesling, esp. german kabinett or spatlese crab is often referred to in language as “sweet” and often dressed up in very nutritious butter, so a reisling like a sweet spatleses might be needed to induce a simple nutritional preference pairing.

foie gras : sauternes this could be a simple nutritional preference pairing where the reward for sweetness trumps the reward for fat.  the reward for the sauterns could only be slightly greater than that of the fatty foie gras making the experiences not feel particularly distant.

olives : sherry, esp. fino, manzanilla or amontillado the most prominent attentional feature of both could either be acidity if the olives are fermented or olfactory umami created by the esterifcation of fatty acids.  upon fermenting olives take on an aroma like sausages and sherry is known for its “rancio” character.

oysters : chablis the most prominent attentional feature of both can be acidity if minionette or lemon juice are added to the oysters resulting of a change in contrast detection in the aroma of the wine.  the chablis may also get associated with the lingering salinity (after image?) and therefore enhanced by our reward system.

salt? p. 164

Does any of this conform to anybody else’s experiences?