There’s a story making the rounds at the moment that wine tasting engages your brain more than solving a maths problem.
The idea was raised by NPR in an interview with Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, who has a book out called Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine.
In the book, he talks about the role the brain plays when we drink wine. He knows what he’s talking about too, being a professor of neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine and the former editor in chief of the Journal of Neuroscience.
“What do listening to music, hitting a baseball and solving a complex math problem have in common?” asked NPR. “They all activate less gray matter than drinking wine.”
While Shepherd’s research does point to wine tasting engaging our brain, he told IFLScience that comparing it to solving a maths problem wasn’t entirely accurate, but it did provide an overview of the science.
“[The article] overstates the point out of context,” he said. “You have to read the book to understand the context, where you’ll find that Neuroenology is a first time broad review of all the brain and body systems involved in the entire sequence of wine tasting.”
This includes first seeing the bottle and the many muscles that are then involved in manipulating wine in the mouth. Shepherd noted there was a “tremendous range of sensory, motor and central brain systems involved in a wine tasting.”
Toshal Patel, a neuroscientist and independent consultant at Tagus Scientific Consulting, told IFLScience that there was some basis to the claims. “Similar to the eyes that take information that hits the retina and construct an optical image in the visual cortex, the nose and tongue have sensory receptors that project to the brain and a perception of taste and smell is constructed there,” he said.
“In my view, the evidence indicates that Professor Shepherd’s observations may be true that consumption of wine is triggering neuronal activity in more regions of the brain. But this may also be the result of the fact multiple sensory systems, olfactory or visual or taste, are being engaged, unlike a maths problem.”
So, it's certainly interesting research – but the conclusion of jumping to comparing it to a maths problem, which Shepherd stressed to IFLScience was not by him, is perhaps a bit of a stretch.