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What is The Psychology of Wine?

What is The Psychology of Wine? How exactly do these two fields interact? By answering these two questions you can get a much better appreciation for wine and learn a lot about how your mind works.

An ingenious study conducted by scientists at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University in 2007 is a perfect introduction to the topic, showing how our enjoyment of a wine is directly related to its perceived price, regardless of its actual price and quality.

One-by-one the twenty volunteers walk into the small, sterile room and are instructed to lie down inside the fMRI scanner. Once in position, the scientists leave the room and the machine is switched on: the sound of the scanner is almost deafening, and the subject lies as still as possible awaiting the wine she was promised outside.

The subject is told that she is about to taste five different Cabernet Sauvignons, provided to her in ascending price order: the first wine costs $5 a bottle at retail, the second costs $10 a bottle, the third costs $35, the fourth $45 and the last a whopping $90. After each tasting, the subject rates each wine according to “flavour pleasantness” and “taste intensity”: basically, did she like the wine?

As expected, the more expensive the wine, the higher the rating: the subject indicated that the price of the wines was positively correlated with taste.

While this was happening the scientists were in an adjacent room, all of them fixated on the fMRI scanner’s screen showing live pictures of the subjects brain. These pictures indicated changes in blood flow throughout her brain (the hemodynamic response), showing a change in brain activity.

Once again a positive correlation was found: this time between the price of the wine and activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC). This showed that the more expensive a wine, the more activity there was in areas of the brain known to be involved in the regulation of emotions and reward anticipation: she wasn’t just saying she liked the more expensive wines better because they cost more, she actually did enjoy them more.

The kicker? The $45 wine was in fact a duplicate sample of the wine that cost only $5 a bottle, while the $10 wine was really a duplicate of the $90 wine. There’s more: the fMRI scanner showed that the duplicate wines didn’t effect parts of the brain involved in experiencing taste differently. No sensory changes were present in the brain while the same wine was tasted but thought to be much more expensive, but the experience was drastically different.

That — and much, much more — is The Psychology of Wine.

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