What is the relationship between language and thought? Wine experts are good at describing wine, but does this cause their thinking about wine to be different? These questions are answered by NOSE members Ilja Croijmans and Laura Speed, Artin Arshamian and NOSE founder Asifa Majid in the article titled Wine Experts’ Recognition of Wine Odors Is Not Verbally Mediated, in the academic journal Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. It was found that although wine experts are indeed better at remembering the smell of wines, this is not mediated by language.
If you can name something, it often becomes also easier to discriminate and remember that thing. Many people struggle with naming smells and tastes, but previous research by Croijmans and Majid shows that wine experts are better at naming smells and tastes. “We asked wine experts and coffee experts to describe the smell and taste of different wines and coffees. Only wine experts were better at describing wines more consistently. If you can name a wine consistently, you would expect that you can also remember that wine better – you can use the consistent description of the wine to remember the wine by, by repeating the description even when the wine itself is already gone.” Croijmans and colleagues set up two experiments with wine experts and average consumers, where they had to smell and remember wine from dark glasses. They also asked the participants to smell and remember common household odors, like soap and cinnamon. In the first experiment, half of the participants could name the smells when remembering them, whereas the other half had to remain silent. Wine experts were found to had a more accurate recognition memory for the wines, but there was no difference between the groups that named the smells or just remembered them.
“That already gives part of the answer – the memory for odors of experts, and that of consumers too, seems not directly benefit from a description.” Croijmans stresses that language may work in different ways: “wine experts are so used to giving descriptions of what they smell, that they may have silently formulated a smell description, regardless of the instruction.” To exclude that possibility, Croijmans asked a group of participants in the second experiment to repeat a string of digits. “By adding this additional task, participants are interfered from using language when remembering the smells. The string of digits occupies their verbal part of working memory. We call this type of task a verbal interference task.” Again, wine experts were found to remember the wine smells better than novices, but again it did not matter whether they were interfered from language or not.
Wine experts are better at remembering the smell of wine than consumers, but they don’t use language when remembering. They also found that wine experts are not better than consumers when remembering everyday odors. The researchers give another possible explanation for the findings: Through their abundant experience, wine experts have learned to very efficiently extract and discriminate specific aspects in a wine. They store those aspects as perceptual signal, without using language. If asked to do so, they can also describe those aspects, but the recognition memory and providing descriptions are two different aspects of wine expertise. Since wine experts only have abundant experience with wine, and not necessarily with everyday household smells, they are only better at remembering and describing wines.
Nevertheless, Croijmans does not rule out some role of language in wine expert’s thought is shaped: “when embarking on the journey of becoming a wine expert, wine descriptions from other experts can help to learn specific aspects of a wine, or to discriminate between different wines. Language may work as a kind of magnifying glass, highlighting specific aspects that may have gone unnoticed otherwise.”
Croijmans continues his research on wine at Utrecht University. For an online study into wine, language and thought, he is still looking for participants that work professionally with wine, and who have a degree (comparable or higher than WSET3). If you are interested in participating in this online study, you can send Ilja an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or particpiate directly: https://survey.uu.nl/jfe/form/SV_4ZXyme1jwMrkbBP