Tuesday, June 18, 2019 07:31

What We Really Taste (or Hear)

avi-hi-fi-neutrons-wine-578-80When I see a post or article whose title suggests a discussion of reality and perception, I dive right in. It’s bound to connect with listening to reproduced music in the home, the stuff of audiophiles.

Maria Konnikova’s “What We Really Taste When We Drink Wine” (The New Yorker, July 12, 2014) provided numerous rewards. All one needs to do is think of some stereo component when reading the word “wine.”

Coming along shortly are the bits that I particularly appreciated (in italics) with commentary by yours truly. A click on the title in the paragraph above will take you to Ms. Konnikova’s whole posting. Like many pieces in The New Yorker, it’s expansive but not enough so that its length exceeds its value.

Ms. Konnikova begins by reporting on an experiment in perception based on tasting wine. It took place in June. Daniel Salzman, a neuroscientist with an apparent behavioral bent, set it up.

[Satzman’s] premise is that no event or object is ever experienced in perfect, objective isolation. It is instead subject to our past experiences, our current mood, our expectations, and any number of incidental details—an annoying neighbor, a waiter who keeps banging your chair, a beautiful painting in your line of sight.

 We experience and have knowledge of reality only through our perceptions. Mine isn’t the same as yours and I specifically mean my reality vs. your reality. I also mean my reality this afternoon vs. my reality tomorrow evening.

One of Brother Dave Gardner’s most telling bits: “And ain’t you ever heard someone say, ‘Let’s do this again.’ Now, how you gonna do that? You cain’t do anythin’ again, brother. Once it’s done, it’s gone! You can do somethin’ similar.”

In other words, that reality is gone. Subsequent realities will be similar.

As our experience grows, so do our expectations. Every time we have a wine, we taste everything we know about it and other related wines. Then there are the unconscious factors: the weather is getting on our nerves, or our dining companion is; we’ve loved or hated this restaurant before; I’m mad at my boss over something he said this morning; the music is too loud, and the room is too cold. These can all affect taste, too, even though they are unrelated to the wine itself.

I call this “the Chinese restaurant syndrome.” I prefer to use chopsticks when at most Asian restaurants (note the quick updating of the adjective). If asked why, I might say “The food just tastes better.” But I know it doesn’t really change the food itself, the flavor. It changes my perception of it, the taste.

Appreciating the qualities of hi-fi gear works the same way. When I put upgraded speaker cables in my system and find I enjoy my music listening more, I say “It sure sounds better.” It’s very likely that it sounds better not because of changes in the motion of electrons in the loudspeaker voice coils or changes in the motion of molecules in the air of the room but rather because of electrochemical changes in my cerebral cortex. Those, by the way are just as “real” as the other changes mentioned.

Just one more snip and comment.

But here’s the real question: Does it matter? Do we actually want to eliminate expectation and create an experience of tasting that approximates blindness? [Antonio Galloni, the former lead wine critic for The Wine Advocate] doesn’t think so. Having spent a big part of his career as a critic in blind tastings, he now fully embraces context as one of the major parts of his enjoyment of and appreciation for wine. “Take art criticism, restaurant reviews, smart phone or car criticism,” he told me. “In none of those fields do you ask someone to critique a product blind. It’s just not done, and it would be crazy. A reviewer tells you about the context, the arc of an artist’s or a chef’s career, how they are doing now relative to before. How this version of the iPhone compares to the others.”

 Bingo! Blind testing of audio gear can be a handy tool for designers and engineers. If they can get a significant listening consensus on the effects of changes in circuitry, for instance, they can make useful adjustments in an amplifier that they’re in the last stages of tweaking. It’s not all that useful for folks who are listening with the goal of selecting a component for purchase.

When we listen to our stereo gear, many things that may affect the experience are known. Appearance counts (to paraphrase the lady in the old truck commercials “Don’t buy no ugly speaker!”), the acquisition experience counts (“Wow! Did I get a good deal on this stuff!”), reviews by recognized authority counts, brand name status counts.

Had enough? Me, too, and I didn’t even get into the quantum mechanics and the affect of “measurement” on “reality.” Another day for that.

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