What's the role of emotion in the perception of wine?

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One of the aspects I didn’t cover much in my discussions of perception in I Taste Red, is how emotion affects the perception of the world around us.

When we are consciously aware of things around us, we create a model of the world that is a seamless, unified representation that includes input from all the senses, joined together and combined during pre-conscious editing steps. What we know of the world is a representation that we have created, based on information that reaches us from our sensory systems, but which also contains input from us, most significantly the knowledge and experience that we have gained of how the world works.

In our infancy, we learned how to package together sensory input from different modalities about aspects of the world, in such a way that we became skilled at manipulating ‘objects’. For example, we recognize immediately a car, a tree or a house, and we have expectations about how these objects normally behave. This is even though cars, trees and houses come in many different types: despite this, we have some sort of filter that has extracted the essential features of these objects that has allowed us to learn to recognize them. This makes processing the world around us much faster, and without this sort of object processing the task of perception would require much more computing power, which would slow us down.

Object manipulation occurs with taste and smell. Take coffee: 800 different aromatic molecules, lots of different styles, but we recognize a coffee as a coffee. Think of an orange. It is a certain shape and colour (vision), plus it feels a certain way (touch), plus it has a characteristic flavour (taste, smell, touch and vision).

And without us generating our own version of reality, creating a model that the reality outside then shapes and constrains, we’d not be able to process reality quickly enough to deal with it. Hence consciousness is effectively a by-product of looking for computational speed and efficiency.

So where does emotion come in?

Classically, cognition (thinking, reason) has been considered as separate to emotion, with the two acting in opposition – the struggle between the mind and the emotion is a common theme in philosophy and literature through the ages. Are we going to allow our rational mind to overcome our base emotions, in order to make sensible, logical decisions?

But research suggests that we can’t make this dichotomy. Emotion is very much a part of cognition, and the two are not easily separated. If we think about how we are feeling right now, then as well as our perception of what is around us, there’s the emotional content that is blended in. The perception affects the emotion, and the emotional state we are in affects the perception. It’s very hard to tease them apart.

If you are tired, or feeling low, this almost acts as a filter through which perception passes. It changes the experience of the world. Likewise, if you are feeling happy or elated, this will change how the world seems to you. People with low blood glucose overestimate distance, for example (they feel tired and that path seems much longer than it is). Strap a heavy pack on someone’s back and they will overestimate the steepness of a hill.

When people experience strong emotions, it changes the way they see the world. In some cases, quite dramatically. Have you tried to reason with a depressed person? Sometimes emotion is so strong that the world looks incredibly bleak and hopeless, while to someone who is happy, it can seem full of opportunity.

One of the most difficult things we do consciously is to interpret the state of another’s mind. As humans, the social skill of reading people’s thoughts and intentions is an incredible bit of computing: something as small as the tone of voice, or a small change in a facial expression, can communicate someone’s mind to us.

Clearly, emotion plays a big role here. Not only are we trying to work out the other person’s emotional state, but also our role in that social interaction is strongly shaped by our own emotional state. How we interpret another’s intentions depends very much on our emotions. We even try to understand the emotional state of someone else through reading their words: this is especially true with social media, where people can take offense to something we say when we meant it entirely innocently. How many interpersonal conflicts have come from people reading ‘between the lines’ and projecting their own emotional baggage onto someone else?

Our emotions lead us to pay attention to different aspects of the environment. It’s possible for us to assign greater significance to certain things when we are in one emotional estate, versus when we are in another. If I am upset, just a small comment from someone else might be misinterpreted and seem like a big deal, when normally I would brush it aside and attach no importance to it. If I’m feeling hungry, the supermarket is a very different environment to me than it is when my belly is full.

What about wine? I think emotions are relevant to our perception of wine, because emotions are a part of perception, and it’s pretty much impossible to tease them out. They will affect our experience of taste and smell. More than this, wine itself contains alcohol, and as we drink, it changes our internal state. It has emotional content, in this very basic sense: as I drink, some of my social inhibitions are withdrawn. If I am in good company and good cheer, this effect is magnified. If I am morose, then I am in danger of plunging further into the pit. But there’s also the emotional content of place and company and our feelings towards the wine. If I’ve found a good bottle at an affordable price on a restaurant list, then there is emotion there. If I am with friends and looking forward to a good evening, this will change the way I perceive the wine, because the emotion is part of that very perception. If a glass of wine is a reward after a long day when the kids are safely off to sleep, this is also a strong emotional content that is part of the experience of wine.

We see emotion in tasting notes. A wine can be joyful. How? It’s an emotion. From reading tasting notes, there is ample evidence that emotion is an integral part of the perception that the writer is trying to capture verbally. Do colours have emotional content? I think so. Wines have colour.

We have downplayed the role of emotion. We have seen it as untrustworthy, and something that must be reined in and overcome. We have lived with the illusion that it is possible to overcome emotion and be rational, and that the two are separate, competing domains. But it’s now clear that emotion is very much part of perceptions. Emotions affect how we perceive, and what we perceive affects our emotion, so that the two are intertwined, and by the time we get this unified conscious perception which contains outside information, our own modelling, and input from our own internal state, they have been blended together in such a way that we can’t really unpick them.

Emotion is part of perception. Emotion is a big part of the perception of wine. It is perhaps no wonder that advertisers seek to place wine in the situation of its consumption, with the emotion of enjoying wine right at the forefront.

4 comments to What’s the role of emotion in the perception of wine?

  • Loved this piece – so on point.

    Have wine advertisers learned yet how to translate that incredible sensation of emotion with perception that we feel after visiting a winery to an ad in a magazine or on social media.

    It’s virtually impossible. There’s no emotion only perception.

    Next month I’m launching a mobile app which will make that connection – looking forward to being in touch with you about it.

  • Rondi Frankel

    What a very interesting article! Emotion can certainly affect the perception of wine and even its effects! I have had hangovers after drinking a moderate amount of wine when I was tense or upset. This is true of food, also: emotional states, even unconscious ones, can cause physical reactions to certain foods. More research would be great!

  • Good read. I certainly agree with Rondi. My friends once let me taste a wine that they said they loved so much. I agreed with their opinion.
    However, in another occasion on a blind tasting, I ranked the exact same wine lower so my perception changed.
    There are really a lot of other reasons influence the perception of a wine

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