The Nose Doesn’t Know

Get close to your screen, click on the image and stair intently at the red spot on this girl’s nose for 20 seconds, when you are done, look at a white surface, (probably your ceiling) and blink your eyes repeatedly.

Wine its hard to tell good wine

Click to enlarge


Could you see her when you blinked your eyes? If not do it again and hold your stair for longer.

You should have been able to see this lady in normal colour, possibly a bit blurred in your field of view.

It works by depleting the oppsins in your eyes that respond to light in the blue part of the spectrum. As a result, you start adjusting your interpretation of the information coming into the visual cortex.

You compensate for the fact that those cells in the back of your eye are getting too much blue light and your mind adjusts.  The net result is that your brain has been definitively tricked into seeing something that clearly isn’t there.

You can also stop sensing things that clearly are there. Have you ever had to work in a room that stinks?  You walk into a room and think: “Oh, my days, it is a bit wiffy in here”, you actually consider your options: If you have an option you may even, go work in another location. But say that is your only option and it is just about manageable. You sit down and after about 20-30minutes you have forgotten about the smell altogether.

We have established that your mind can be comprehensively tricked. The reason for this is that our perceptions are not absolute, they are calibrated. There are all kinds of things going on with how we perceive the world. Our brains are doing the best job they can to hold it together, whilst giving us a workable view of how the world is. Another great way to see this is to look at this exclamation mark “!”. If you stare at it intently, how many letters either side can you see whilst keeping your eyes still and holding your focus on that exclamation mark? I struggle to see the “k” on the end of “mark” and the “y” on the front of “you”.  However far you get you have to accept that is an absolutely tiny area of your vision that is clear.

You may be aware that the edge of your vision is not acute but did you also know that you have almost no colour vision at all at the edge of your field of view? The edge of your eye is dominated by rods. They are cells that can detect low levels of light. They fire and send a signal to the brain even if the photons of light that strike them are low energy. Your mind can interpret the massive mess of signals coming from your eye, and gives you the impression you have an almost perfect window on the world.

Now think about it. Of all your senses which is your strongest? It’s your vision. Despite everything I have just said humans are comparatively visual creatures. We are members of the only mammal group that have 3 colour receptors; we are primates just like monkeys. You might have heard that dogs see in black and white. They don’t, they have 2 colour receptors, so I guess they see in a sort of sepia. It must be like watching the film Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels all the time.

What is man’s least developed sense? It’s smell. In fact we humans have the highest know number of smell – pseudogenes 51%. These are genes that have been damaged and no longer work. Chimps are also impaired, 41% of their smell genes are pseudogenes but dogs only have 21% of the smell genes damaged. As a result we humans live in a world that is almost totally lacking in olfactory information.

You may have a great sense of smell for a human, but if you go in a room full of chimpanzees and they’re all laughing, be aware that it could be because you are the only one that can’t smell a lingering fart. Interestingly the reason why we have fewer smell genes is that as we walk upright are tiny noses have been lifted well off the ground. Unlike our mouse like Jurassic ancestors we walk about with our noses in the air and don’t use them to snuffle about in the dark sniffing through leaves for nuts and insects to eat.

Given that you know that we have one of the best visual systems of a land based mammal, and we have the worst sense of smell and taste of any land mammal, what do you think seems to be the most important stimulus we perceive when judging the quality of wine?

It turns out that the most important thing is the vessel that the wine was served to you in. This is a clear visual stimulus. You shouldn’t feel bad about this at all. For 43 million years, our ancestors have been using their eyes to find delicious things. That means were reasonably hardwired to look at some food presented in a beautiful bottle and think I bet that tastes good. The visual cues set us up to expect good things.

Think about it: If you go foraging with someone for mushrooms to eat in a wood, how do you tell if they are poisonous? You look very, very closely at them. You are looking for visual cues that tell you this one is okay. Would you trust somebody that said: “this one smells okay?” No, absolutely not. So why is it any surprise to us, that we are actually not that good at distinguishing the quality of wine?

Don’t get me wrong, when somebody buys me an expensive bottle of wine. I sit down, I drink it. I absolutely believe that it tastes wonderful. My experience is that that wine tastes wonderful. But if you’re going to be brutally honest with yourself, you have to acknowledge that if I can make you see a women on the ceiling that isn’t there, there is at least the possibility that whilst I perceive a wine tastes great, it is entirely possible that somebody may have replaced the liquid in the bottle with something cheaper. Yet my perception remains unchanged. If we can see illusions, then we can definitely taste them.

If this wasn’t possible and all humans could reliably distinguish between expensive/good wine and cheap/inferior wine, then there would be no market for counterfeit bottles of wine. The truth is that at least some of us are incapable of distinguishing between some wines. I’m not saying for a moment, that you can’t tell if the wine is corked, or if you’re drinking vinegar, but what I am saying is: it could be very hard for you to estimate the cost of a bottle of wine, based on the quality you perceive alone.

That doesn’t diminish, the skill that it takes to make good wine. Grapes have to be grown, climatic conditions have to be taken into account, grape juice has to be pressed, filtered brood and blended. These are all highly skilful, subjective processes which are undertaken by dedicated and skilled professionals. But just like an artist preparing oil paint, the end result is open to interpretation, and how much you appreciate the final result like any work of art is deeply personal.

Wine is a lot like art: people who know a lot about wine should be respected for that knowledge. But nobody should be made to feel bad, just because they haven’t been exposed to a wide variety of artworks yet. Equally, it should be a perfectly legitimate stance to not know much about wine, but know exactly what you like. Perhaps the fact that the wine industry is struggling to attract younger customers is because there is still a great deal of elitism tied up with wine. Many people feel intimidated by the idea of being trapped in a room with somebody who is a “wine snob”.

Given that the experimental evidence seems to suggest that, most wine professional struggle to detect the difference between closely related wines and the top medals are nearly handed out at random, it is a crushing shame if people are being put off by elitist wine nonsense.

If you dismiss cheap wine you are pulling up the ladder behind you. It’s not fair, because it intimidates people who know less than you, and deprives them of the pleasures you hold dear. So from now on, unless you are looking at the blurry girl on the ceiling, please don’t turn your nose up. Its already been rendered next to useless by the  evolution of humans walking up right, and we don’t want things to get any worse.

For More info:

BBC: Origins of Us


The Observer


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