July 23, 2024


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A Group of Cognitive Scientists and Teachers Go To A Wine Tasting And….

A Group of Cognitive Scientists and Teachers Go To A Wine Tasting And….

A classroom for some, perhaps


It sounds like the first line of a joke:

“A group of cognitive scientists go to a wine tasting…” but it actually happened.

The punch line “and then they end up having a discussion about the role of knowledge in perception and learning” isn’t ideal from a humor POV but from a teaching POV it was pretty amazing.

The wine tasting took place in Chile at an event for presenters at Research Ed Chile- They included Hector Ruiz-Martin, Juan Fernandez, Harry Fletcher-Wood, Pooja Agarwal, myself and a few other teachers and educators.

The setting was Santa Rita vineyards where after a tour (beautiful!) a wine-maker poured us glasses and encouraged us to describe what we were tasting and smelling.

“What aromas are you getting?” she asked as we sampled a red… it was a red made up of a bunch of different grapes. I can’t remember much more about the wine because I am distinctly not a wine guy.  

Ok, now I’ve looked it up… it was a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carménère… I couldn’t remember that because while I know Cabernet Sauvignon and have heard of Cabernet Franc I’d never heard of Carménère.  Which is interesting. If you’d asked some of the others in the group they’d probably remember that right away. It’s easy to remember details of things you know about—you know the word Carménère already- you are just remembering that that it was present.  What was the name of that grape I’d never heard of is much harder to remember. Its always harder to remember things you’d never heard of.

In fact when she has asked us to guess what grapes were in the wine several of my colleagues guessed carménère. I couldn’t of course because I lacked background knowledge. How could I infer the presence of something I didn’t know existed?

But back to the story… “Don’t say, ‘grapes,’” our winemaker was saying, as she asked us for our insights about the aroma. She was kidding, but that’s actually what I was going to say. Or all I was capable of saying. I am a novice and so when I stuck my nose in the glass, I was unable to discern or name what I was smelling. It smelled like wine. I’m not sure you can discern what you can’t name. Language causes us to conceive of something. On then can we begin to perceive it and organize our experience of it. 

This of course is Cog Sci 101. You perceive based on your knowledge and experience. Experts perceive principles and details—they pick up cassis and blackberries and chocolate. Novices don’t know what they are smelling for really or how to describe it. They say: I smell wine. You understand much less of what you are perceiving when you don’t have experience and background knowledge.

But the wine was tasty and I didn’t mind.

That said I did notice that it wasn’t especially motivating to me to be asked to discern insights about what I couldn’t perceive.  It was much more interesting when the winemaker said: “I am smelling blackberries. Some people get cassis. It’s sweet and rich.” That at least let me start to identify and name what I was smelling. With a lot of guidance from an expert I might eventually be able to discern the pattern… but for the most part I was guessing. And my guessing wasn’t critical thinking. Nor was it especially fun for me. Being told things that were useful was more interesting not less. I started to make the first glimmers of connection- to begin to organize the experiences of “smelling blackberry in wine” that in the long run, after a lot more experience, might allow me to quickly perceive its presence. But for now no amount of questions or encouragement about the skill of smelling:  “Breathe in deeply; place your nose in the glass; twirl it to release the aroma!” would help particularly. You couldn’t motivate me to perceive what i did not know. Technique wasn’t much help either.

“There are no right answers,” our wine-maker reminded us. And then she said something fascinating. “Let’s say I talked about peaches in this wine,” she said, placing her hand on a white. [What kind of white? I can’t really remember].  “There are people in our group from Chile and from Spain. From the US and from England. To say “the smell of a peach” I am invoking different smells from each of you. A peach quite literally smells different in each of those places. And perhaps some of you have smelled many more peaches than others.”

She was reminding us that we can perceive what we already know. That each of us had a different experience of “peach”… or none at all.

It struck me as she said that that I wasn’t entirely sure what cassis was. And therefore what it smelled like. “Is a cassis like a black currant?” I asked.

One of my colleagues explained that it is a flavoring distilled from currants. If I’d smelled it I didn’t really remember it. And we don’t do a lot with currants in the US. So I would really struggle to smell cassis even if it crawled out of the glass and bit me.  Even if it was painfully obvious to most wine drinkers.

To make a long story short, as we discussed on the ride home, it was a case study in perception and analysis. We were given a challenging task: what are the smells? What are the tastes? And even though it was an experience that embraces subjectivity—everyone’s perceptions are their own—it was still profoundly knowledge driven. To the experts it was an exercise in critical thinking, nuance, insight. To the novices it was an exercise in randomness. We learned very little from the ‘experiential” part of the tasting because we could not connect what we perceive to other information in our brains, information we already knew. We learned when someone explained and named things for us. The experts were able to get more out of experiential learning, exactly as the guidance fading effect would have predicted.   But there was more tasting than teaching and the gap between novices and experts only widened.