This week for Tasting Tuesday we’re talking sensory memory. I’m away in a hotel room which makes it a perfect time to talk about how we can use our environment to improve tasting performance and make sensory memories.
Below the video is the breakdown of specifics and sources for research on taste and environment.
Using Environment to Improve Tasting Performance
If you’re getting this serious about tasting there is a good chance you are preparing for a test; maybe WSET, BJCP, Cicerone, or Sommelier. (By the way if you don’t know what these words mean, it is truly not important!)
What is important is the fact that changes in our environment change what we perceive. Charles Spence’s excellent book Gastrophysics studies this in depth but for the goal of passing your exam you need to focus on one thing. Studying in an environment as close to your testing environment as possible. My friend Dr. Asa Stone (follow her at @beerpairdlife!) points out that this goes for all aspects of the test: Will you write on paper or type on a computer? Will there be a time limit? What pen will you use?
For tasting practice, focus on things like noise level, the colors around you, the kind of chair you are sitting in and how high your table is, the glasses you are using, and either saying or writing your answers. Information collected by the sesnse other than sight are especially important here. For Cicerone, you’ll be writing tasting notes, for other tasting exams you may be saying them to a proctor.
By curating your environment you not only practice exam conditions but you also cement in your mind: “This environment means testing mode.” Upon arriving in a testing style environment your brain will take in the information and know it is game time. So you’re one step ahead on the big day!
What is Sensory Memory?
A technical definition of a sensory memory would be “a triggered recollection of a brief memory that allows a person to retain an impression of sensory information during times after the original stimulus has ceased.” In other words, a sensory memory is similar to a visual memory but feels more vivid because aromas and tastes are also recalled.
Rather than being memories of a story or period of time, sensory memories tend to feel like a flash. A sensory memory will recall only a few seconds rather than a full picture.
Creating Strong Sensory Memories
The other facet of improving our tasting abilities by focusing on our environment is creating stronger sensory memories.
The first thing to understand is why memories, especially emotional ones, are so closely tied to our sense of aromas. It has to do with where scents are processed in the brain.
When scent molecules come in contact with our olfactory bulb (the receptors we focused on a few weeks ago) they are just one neural connection away from being processed by the limbic system in the amygdala. The amygdala is located toward the front of the head. It is also the area where the brain processes emotions. Once information is processed in the amygdala it travels to the adjoining hippocampus. This is the same brain region where learning and memory formation take place.
Not only does this synthesis of aroma information take place in this special brain region where emotions and memories reside, it also happens much more quickly than the synthesis of other sensory cues. Sights, sounds, tastes, and touch sensations are first processed in the thalamus toward the middle of the brain. After processing these sensations will be sent to other regions of the brain.
Sensory Memory Examples
All of this to say, when something is especially emotional or especially novel it is likely that scent will be part of that memory.
A common example is comments like, “Oh, the minute I smell my grandmother\’s perfume. I can picture her. I know that scent immediately.”
While authentic memories like those of your Grandmother are best, there are ways to force these strong sensory memories.
When you’re tasting something new, try to do it in a memorable and novel environment. This is especially important if you’re only able to get one sample of something that will be on your test. Go out of your way to try it in a way that is novel, maybe listening to a new band for the first time in the background, or going to a new location.
The more we focus on what we’re tasting (and therefore smelling) the more likely the sensory memory will stick. I wasn’t trying to force a sensory memory of Belgian Dark Strong into my mind when I was sipping a Westvleteren 12 in Belgium. I was sitting outside of Saint-Sixtus Abbey where monks brew the beer. During my first sips of this “special” beer I was so focused on it and the beautiful environment around me featuring sweeping fields, historic architecture, and general elation of being on vacation, that I still get flashes of the memory when I catch a whiff of Belgian Dark Strong aroma now. Even years later I can still see the glass and metal patio table I was sitting at. It feels like a super power that I can recall this special moment whenever I want!
Now you can work on creating your own time traveling memories.
Sensory Memory Sources
Tell me in the comments what uncanny memories you have that are triggered by specific scents! And I’d love to know if you’re studying for a test, or just here to learn something new. You can reach me at @beerswithmandy. Cheers!