I spent my day at the Fifth International Conference of Neuroesthetics. Having no idea what that was, I was attracted to it by sheer curiosity. The auditorium at the art museum was overflowing with an intelligent audience listening to a peculiar combination of presentations.
There were scientists explaining the physiology of tasting and smelling. There was one erudite winemaker chap with a pony-tail whose reflections on his favorite beverage made me wonder whether he was putting us on. (Certainly not! He was sharing the most profound aspect of his life, I finally realized.) There was a chef who dripped essential oils onto little slips of paper for us to pass around and sniff. He suggested that we smear similar drops throughout our houses and even on our dogs. I am still shaken from his disclosure that the oil of white truffles for sale in California’s gourmet shops is synthetic, bearing no relationship whatever to real truffles.
We were invited to consume a little, courtesy of the other speakers. One very pregnant physiologist gave us each a jellybean to chew while holding our noses. This proved to us that only when we release the nose can we discern the flavor of the candy. There was a handsome Princeton professor who studies the causes of preferring Coke over Pepsi. (He has learned that we cannot taste the difference unless we are told what we're drinking — but we believe we can.) There was a zen priest who gives cooking lessons. After intoning an appropriate prayer, he led us through a ceremony: eating just one potato chip. (We should not try this at home, he warned us.) And finally, there was a neurologist from Sweden who described her research on pheromones.
What an eclectic group! Most of them were truly highfalutin scientists. Their charts would impress anyone. I am sure they understood each other and I imagine they went to dinner together afterward and had a swell time swapping tall stories about their pursuit of truth. But they cannot have found anything in common with the non-scientific presenters, who for that matter cannot have much in common with each other. What would the zen priest and the winemaker talk about if seated together in a pub? Will the essential oil chef go on through life ceremonially eating just one potato chip at a time or chewing just one red jellybean while holding his nose? I doubt it. They had disclosed their most intimate experiences in public, but nobody was proselytizing anyone else. Especially the winemaker was not. He merely wanted to familiarize us with the phenomenon of “terroir,” a spiritual attribute that only rare wines can acquire and that only rare wine tasters can perceive. Terroir is the “somewhereness” that can emerge in a particular local wine only when the soil and the familial lineage of vintners have collaborated for generations to create a taste that is absolutely unique. Terroir cannot be perceived through chemical analyses but only through the spiritual sensitivity of great, great, great, great wine-drinkers.
I did learn some stuff today, though I cannot organize my learnings well enough to pass them on to you, since I nodded off regrettably often. The only speaker who commanded my full attention was the last one, a dark, glamorous Serbian neurologist in a red pashmina shawl from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who showed us bar charts about pheromones. I wondered whether the other scientist approved of her methodology, since she does her brain scans by Positron Emission Tomography, not fMRIs. But she seems to be closing in on the truth about human pheromones. The first challenge is to prove that they exist and the second is to prove that they do attract people to each other for sexual relationships. Clearly animals are run by their pheromones, but are we? The problem is that, whereas human beings do have “vemeronasal pits” for sensing these sexy odors, we have no nerves running from our pits to our brains. Nevertheless, hard evidence exists that each sex reacts to the pheromones of the other – except for homosexual males, whose brain scans resemble those of heterosexual women. Someone asked about the brain scans of lesbians but she declined to answer; she has submitted her paper for publication and her lips must be sealed on its contents until it comes out. But she hinted that male and female homosexuals are not alike. I am still mulling that over.
Unfortunately, responses to pheromones decline as people age. I guess I am too old now to react wholeheartedly to male sweat. And certainly it's too late for me to become sensitized to terroir. Surely, however, I can still master the single potato chip. Tomorrow I'll go to the Buddhist outfit around the corner and work on my mindfulness.