Drinking wine to understand how we see the world… no really!

A few months back, I was designated ‘scientist for the evening’ at Science in the Pub, which is held monthly at the wonderful Ritzy cinema in Brixton. I conducted a small experiment, involving red wine, which was based (oh so scientifically!) around an article I had read.

A reasonably strong red wine was watered down by about 10% (this just sounds more and more scientific with every word I type, right?) and each member of the audience was asked to sample both without knowing which was which. They were then asked the following questions:

  1. Which wine tastes better?
  2. Which wine is stronger?
  3. Which is the better vintage?

The question of interest was number 2; the others were asked in order to distract from this key question. Why is this question of interest? Well, this is explained by the article:

It all started when a bartender in London observed to Times writer Harold McGee that watered down cocktails could actually smell stronger than stiffer ones. Drinks like water and whiskey are far from uncommon, but in addition to cutting down the alcohol’s bite, the water also intensifies the drink’s aroma.

That might seem like exactly the opposite of what should happen, but, McGee explains, aroma molecules tend to cling to alcohol molecules, and when there’s less total alcohol in the drink, the aroma molecules evaporate more readily and you get a fuller, stronger smell. And with smell being so closely tied to taste, the diluted drink can still seem plenty flavorful.

Apparently in wine tasting 101 one of the first things people learn is that, due to the limited taste palate of the tongue, most of the tasting is done through smell. This example, where taste and smell combined allows us (well allows some people…) to taste the subtle differences in a range of wines, is just one example of how all our senses combine to create the world we perceive.

The experiment’s results, however, were not clear cut… Around half the pub science audience said the watered down wine was stronger and the other said the regular wine was. Although this does not prove the theory that the watered down wine tastes stronger because it smells stronger, it was a fun way to introduce the topic of multisensory perception. I was getting people to drink wine so they could learn about how we see the world!

What we see is most dominant in affecting what we perceive. This is demonstrated in this short clip from Horizon:


And here is a slightly more common example of where vision dominates over the other senses…



In ventriloquism the audio is coming from a different location to the visual movement, but you perceive them as coming from the same place. Creepy? Funny? Little of both?

These are just a couple of example to show how we all live in our own little worlds. I have only scratched a surface of this very complex but fascinating topic but basically it comes down to the fact that each of us combine our senses in a slightly different way to make up our own sensory world!

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