Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Raw Sensation / Unmediated Pleasure

Look, bear with me, there will be a point to this.

I studied psychology as an undergraduate degree. Along with a lot of contentious nonsense, a few interesting things stuck with me. One was the phenomenon of being at a party, or in a busy pub, and hearing someone say your name against a chorus of 50 people talking. The implication here is that your brain is unconsciously monitoring everything in the room, and then when something interesting happens - like someone saying your name - your brain shimmers into the room like Jeeves and politely draws your attention to it.

Another thing made an impression on me was seeing a couple of my tutors argue about 'raw sensation'. That's the idea of the moment that brain senses something is going on, but hasn't yet made sense of it. The example that was given was if you touch your finger on something and can't tell if it's really hot or really cold. Your reflexes just go "NO!" before your brain can figure out exactly why it's going "NO!".

All of this was brought back to me recently when I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations", where he hangs out with jefe of El Bulli, Ferran Adria. Part of the programme is Bourdain, Adria and couple of others eating their way through the El Bulli tasting menu - a few dozen courses, each just a mouthful or two.

One of the most striking things was the joy that Adria clearly got from eating the food he'd designed. He obviously didn't get to sit down and eat his way through his own menu every day, and to see him have a succession of "HA! WTF?!" moments was beautiful to behold. There's a fairly rudimentary description of this sensation here in paragraph seven, where I have my mind blown in a way that I never have before, and I also touch on it here.

Maybe what made me think about this was Boak and Bailey's flagging of my reaction to a beer. Or maybe it was the pint of Tetley's I had tonight that had a weirdly evocative hint of orange blossom the reminded me of spring in Seville. Or was it the pint of Wadworth's Henry's IPA I had at Christmas that had a faintly stale backnote to it that reminded me of my parents drinks cabinet at Christmas, but when I was ten years old.

Well, I promised a point at the start, so I guess I'd better make one. How much of drinking beer is an intellectual exercise, using the front brain to analyse what's going on, and how much of it is an almost pre-cognitive reaction to what you're drinking? Can we give finely graded 100 point ratings to beers, where we pull it to bits, or is a simple binary yes-no system good enough? And returning to the image in my mind of Ferran Adria rolling his eyes and grinning at his own food, isn't it important to have a visceral reaction to what we drink, as well as a cerebral one?


  1. I'd consider that to most, people won't use their brains to analyse what's going on, but merely chuck grog down their necks. To some who actually value and think about their choices & what they consume then I think there is many things going on in their brain when they taste something. You can have a binary yes or no system, but I think that would only apply to the individual who's giving the answer. Also you can have your rating system, but there are those who won't be able to comprehend aspects of it. Asked for visceral and cerebral reactions to drinking, I'm afraid I'll need a little more time to think about that one ;)
    Drink Tetley's and party all the time is a good idea to me!

  2. You probably need to read "Neurograstronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters."

  3. I thinh there's always going to be a slight disconnect between *that* moment - and then dissecting it to try and make sense of it. 'Beer People' - from writers, interested publicans, bloggers and brewers - should be Sensualists (bear with me) because that, rather than listing the tastes out on a notepad, should be what drives us and spurs us on to find the next sensation.
    This is the common thread that ties us all together. The example you make about the Bourdain episode (which I also saw - to be honest Bourdain could film himself reading the TV Times and I'd watch it) is a great example, and the theme of that episode in particular is incredibly resonant in beer - no matter how long you've been doing it, how jaded the palate or mind, there's always something new around the corner. That's the key to beer-hunting as it is in the production of any food or drink. Sensuality, innovation, surprise and, ultimately, pleasure.

  4. This is part of what we were getting at in our post: if something excites you, one way or another, it's worth trying to work out why; no amount of intellectualising is going to turn a beer that doesn't make your eyes pop into one that does. (Not all beers have to be exciting; brown bitters at less than 4% can be exciting; other terms and conditions may apply.)

  5. I think it's a bit of both. Your first reaction is "I like it"/"I don't like it" and then you might start trying to explain yourself why.

  6. PF -- although I can't be doing with reviews of *anything* which conclude it's not enjoyable but is still "good for you" in some way. ("The rotting shark flesh made me vomit, but I feel I understand Icelandic culture better..")

  7. Almost sounds like the hermeneutical circle, where you must understand the whole to appreciate the parts, and from appreciating the parts your understanding of the whole is transformed, which is turn refines your view of the parts, and so the cycle goes.

  8. Ghostie - that's a fair observation. What I meant was the point just before you figure out why you like it, when the monkey part of your brain is just going "ooh, ooh, ooh, YEAH!"

    Stan - finally, some homework I can get my brain into

    Leigh - interestingly, and I suspect that this will be borne out by Stan's suggested reading, I'm sure that novelty (newness) is a big factor in that almost pre-conscious reaction to tasting. It's hard to have your mind repeatedly boggled by the same thing, so perhaps it's only a certain personality type who repeatedly seeks out new sensations.

    Bailey - I'm not so sure about that the eye-pop is so fundamental (although thhat is what I'm talking about, I think). The Tetley's and Wadworth's beers I refer to above certainly didn't make my eyes pop or the monkey bit of my brain go "ooh, ooh, ooh", but they did fire a load of synapses that made me stop and think "what is that, and where is it coming from?".

    PF, Velky Al - it's a fair point, but there's a lot of crossing of pre-conscious and rational thought going on there.

  9. Well, there's also the factor of expectations, the moment and the place, etc., etc...

  10. There's a couple of chapters relevant to this in a book called 'Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine.' OK so it's about wine, which might put some people off in a kind of inverse snobbery way, but it makes fascinating reading if you're at all interested in relating the brain to all that sensory gear we use to taste. Highly recommended.

  11. I watched that episode too.

    Every now and again a beer just knocks me sideways and its definately an emotional rather than rational experience. My Antonia by Birra Del Borgo was the last beer that did that to me, I nearly did an "Avery beer laugh"!

  12. I think essentially instinct kicks in and a taste not fundamentally liked remains so, even if accepted by huge swaths of Europe, say, or the American West Coast. You might try to rationalize not liking something but the "back of the palate" reminds you so to speak.

    However, an experienced taster can properly assess the merits of any beer, even one not liked. I can tell when a wheat beer is well-made or not, even if it's not my preferred style.



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