Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Next time you think about splurging on that fancy red wine for Great Aunt Rita’s visit, don’t feel bad if you can’t afford it.

We’re not suggesting you pour Franzia into a crystal glass and tell her it’s Napa’s finest. But chances are, if she thinks you’re serving her a great vintage, she’ll taste one.

Yep. The human brain is cunning like that.

Research shows that areas in the brain associated with pleasure are more active when people sip what they think is an expensive wine than if they sip what they think is a cheap wine. That’s true even if it’s exactly the same wine.

Red or White?

It’s not just what people tell you that changes things. It’s what you see.

In 2001, a guy named Frédéric Brochet at the University of Bordeaux in France got together a bunch of wine experts and gave each of them a glass of white wine and a glass of red wine. The “experts” used terms typically associated with whites to describe the white and terms used for reds to describe the red.

Advertisement

Here’s the catch: the wines were exactly the same. The red was really just the white, dyed.

Your mind will also look at how something is served and make subconscious judgments. If someone serves you a brownie on a china plate, you’re more likely to say that brownie tastes better than the same exact brownie served on a paper napkin. That’s why if you give Great Aunt Rita a cheap wine and you want her to think it’s high-end, you should put it in an expensive glass.

More than Taste

Richard Doty, professor of Otorhinolaryngology and director of the University of Pennsylvania Smell and Taste Center said during an interview with Fusion that when you eat, you’re not just tasting, you’re also taking in things like smell, food texture, temperature, color and sound. Your brain then takes all of that information and uses it to activate certain nerve areas.

Advertisement

The brain’s process of experiencing a flavor also has a memory component with “top-down processing,” he said, so if you eat a cherry flavored candy that is “colored grape,” the flavor you experience may be grape because your brain saw the purple and, before you popped it into your mouth, expected grape.

Predictably, these mixups are more likely when foods have similar flavors. You’re not going to eat what looks like a piece of licorice that is actually lemon-flavored and taste licorice. But you might eat a piece of licorice that is root beer-flavored and taste licorice.

The memory component is also why some people who lose their sense of smell still perceive taste.

Advertisement

They “are conditioned to such a point that when you take the input away, they still experience it,” Doty said.

Losing smell completely is very rare, but the senses do degrade over time. According to Doty, three out of four people over age 80 show a demonstrable loss in smell.

Bittersweet Confusion

The flavors you experience also depend on the types of taste in question. People pretty regularly confuse sour and bitter, Doty said. And oddly enough, sometimes salty gets thrown into that mix.

Advertisement

Sweet doesn’t, though. That’s because, Doty said, the neurons that signify sweet are pretty much dedicated to sweet. Other neurons respond to both bitter and sour tastes, which can confuse the brain.

Imagine being the group of people in this experiment who were asked to taste a bowl of “ice cream.” People associate the term ice cream with sweet, so when they tasted the real flavor, smoked salmon, they weren’t too happy. People who were asked to try a “frozen savory mousse” were much more receptive to the salmon flavor.

Don’t Be Fooled

There’s a more sinister aspect to all of this taste vs. expectation confusion, though. Enter marketers. They’ve gotten really good at duping us.

Advertisement

People are obsessed with packaging. They will spend more on something that’s nicely wrapped and insist that they are getting a better product.

As a young man, Doty worked in a California cannery. The workers ran pears through the same exact process with one slight difference: the label. Some came out with generic markers and others were stamped with known brand names. Off they went to stores who then slapped wildly different prices on the cans.

“People rationalize that if they pay more, it must be better,” Doty said. “I could not convince them!”

Advertisement

The moral of this story? Your brain is tricking you. Buy the store-brand canned pears. Or, actually, life’s short. Buy a real pear.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.