The brain is a really complex organ. It has an astonishing ability to learn, and the speed of this is often taken for granted.
Yesterday I read a series of articles on wine tasting and how the nose can quickly become sensitised to the subtleties of aromas present in wine bouquets. One paper from RealScience gave us this:
“You don't need wine-tasting classes to detect subtle differences between pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. Just pour yourself a couple of glasses and sniff. Your brain itself will quickly make you a modest wine expert. And you can drink the lesson plan. A new study (2006) from Northwestern University shows that the brain learns to differentiate similar smells through passive experience. This sheds light on how we learn to identify thousands of smells from birth.”The long and the short is that by sniffing specific wines, the nose can become acutely sensitive to a particular aroma and can learn to recognise it in just a few minutes. What’s even more astonishing is that the memory of the bouquet can be retained for 24 hours or more with little or no effort.
Apparently this is all due to a special part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which is to do with sensing smells, as well as emotion and motivation.
It's all in the nose
So what’s so special about sniffing wine?
It’s all to do with learning. What’s more,
it seems that this particular type of learning
is extremely fast and facile, being rapidly updated by further sensory experience.
It’s what’s called neural plasticity.
In a brief discussion with Stephen Downes on knowledge and learning, we came to the conclusion that it was too easy for a learner to get stuck in a habitual rut. It required some considerable acumen and strength of thinking to lift oneself out of that into a facile learning mode. "Learning is practice and reflection", said Stephen.
But with the old orbitofrontal cortex, it would appear that updating according to change, from whichever way the wind blows, happens almost instantly. Learning anew and quickly is customary for that part of our brain. Perhaps the rest of it that’s to do with thinking and learning could learn a thing or two from sniffing the bouquet from a glass of cabernet sauvignon!