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Dimensions of Taste: Making the Unconscious Conscious



This page was designed as a lesson for a K-12 teacher workshop on the Brain, Science and Inquiry-Based Education.  One topic to be explored during the workshop is the relationship between unconscious learning and conscious learning.  The goal of this lesson is to give participants first hand experience with making conscious and becoming aware of, knowledge that exist locked away unconsciously. The premise is as follows: When one tastes wine (or any food or drink with a rich history of connoisseurship like coffee, olive oil, or cheese) the unconscious unaware to the conscious self is processing many flavor dimensions by the very nature and architecture of the human sensory and nervous system.  While some tasters remain unaware of the many dimensions that are being processed, the connoisseur has over time and practice learned to bring those flavor dimensions into conscious awareness. The implications for teaching and learning will be explored.  Some related topics are variation in nervous systems, play in the classroom, the Theory of Play, hands-on activities, and meta-cognition.

  1. Blind taste 4-5 wines and try to match a list of appellations to the unknown wines; record individual choices and summarize class percentages.  Theses answers will be compared to the final answers given after the final tasting of the same wines at the end of the activity.
  2. Blind taste samples demonstrating five primary "taste sensations". Then mix in Umami and taste again.
  3. Participants should define flavor in their own terms.
  4. Discuss main factors affecting wine flavor
    • human sensory physiology
    • grape physiology
    • climate effects on grape physiology
    • cultural traditions
  5. Taste Wine, Compare class and individual answers to original choices and Discuss
  6. Discuss implications for Education

BRAIN DRAIN: What do you think when you hear...?
Match the pre-poured wine samples in front of you to the appellation from the following list:

  1. Marlborough, New Zealand
  2. Sancerre, France
  3. California, USA
  4. Bordeaux, France
  5. Asti, Italy

Taste the following samples:

• Sweet: 1 cup water with 2 teaspoon sugar
• Salty: 1 cup water with 1 teaspoon salt
• Sour: 1 cup water with ½ teaspoon cream of tarter which is tartaric acid
• Bitter: ½ teaspoon unsweetened baking chocolate - do not mix with water rather chew and coat the mouth with it
• Umami: 1 cup water with 1 tablespoon dried shiitake mushrooms – boil it and then let it cool
By tasting each solution individually you will be able to isolate each individual taste. Make sure you rinse your mouth thoroughly with plain water before tasting each new solution. Taste each solution multiple times to make sure your taste receptors understand their differences. Then taste each solution again but add a small amount of the Umami solution to it. Pay close attention and you will find that the salt and sweet solution become more intense while the sour and bitter sensation are muted or rounded. Remember only add a small amount of the Umami solution, too much will distort the results.
--- Adapted from WineGeeks
After completing the two, initial tasting, define "flavor" in your own terms.
Human sensory physiology



Quick Time Animation of Taste Perception
Diagram of Olfactory Anatomy
Formative Assessment Question: Can the old hypothesis and the new be reconciled?
Grape Physiology

Figure 1. Changes in sugar concentration and titrateable acidy during ripening of grapes.t- Sugar, n- Acidity.
Formative Assessment Question: With all else equal, which wine will have a higher alcohol content; a wine made from Napa Co. grapes picked at the end of August or a wine made from grapes picked at the end of October?  Discuss with a neighbor.
Climate Effects on Grape Physiology
Wine is sunlight, held together by water.  ~Galileo

Sunlight = Sugar and ripening
Heat = ripening, but too much heat = loss of acidity
Cool = bright acidity, but too cool = loss of ripening

  • Best grape growing climate = Long hot days, followed by cool nights (sounds Mediterranean?)

 Degree Days
Degree Day Real Time Calculator for California
Temp Summary for San Luis Obispo
Latitude and Day Length  (see google maps)
Sunset for Philadelphia July 12th = 8:30pm
400 miles north in Ottawa, Canada = 8:50pm
Tablas Creek Blog discussion of Cool vs Hot climates for wine grapes
Formative Assessment Question: All else equal, which location, Canada or Mexico, will accumulate more degree days in July? ... in October after the equinox?
Putting it all together: Making the Unconscious, Conscious.

  • Acidity, Sweetness,  and Bitterness are important taste sensations in Wine and are the result of human physiology and grape physiology.


A Brain on Wine

  • Like Umami, alcohol in wine alters the perception of the other taste dimensions.  Alcohol accentuates sweetness, heightens acidity and dampens bitterness.

Cultural Traditions 
 Discuss traditions and resulting wine characteristics of wines in the original blind tasting.

  1. Marlborough, New Zealand
  2. Sancerre, France
  3. California, USA
  4. Bordeaux, France
  5. Asti, Italy



Figure #1: Comparison of correctly identified wines by country before and after participating in the above conversation about flavor, human physiology of taste and grape physiology.

More on Neurobiology of Tasting
New Tongue Map from Nature
Article on Umami from WineGeeks
Article on Flavor of Wine from WineGeeks
Wine Aroma Wheel
What does reality look like?  A Serendip Exhibit.


Geneva Tolliferreo's picture

2nd Thursday AM & PM: Wine paring with Lesson





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This lesson was frightening and frustrating for me, both personally and professionally.  Personally, I am allergic to wine and have been for the majority of my adult life.  Just the intensity of the smell of approximately 60 open cups of wine has simply nauseated me, to the point of having the sweats.  I am allergic to wine, and I have been for the major majority of my adult life.  Not only do I get the hives upon consumption, I get nauseated from the smell.  I experienced the latter allergic reaction during this lesson early on in the lesson.  Realizing I was not obligated to be involved because of my sensitivity, I sat back in what I thought was out of harm’s way; basically because I knew sitting at my computer may have been frowned upon.  But isn’t that one of the reasons for learning centers in classrooms, so students have constructive alternatives for reasons other than time out for inappropriate behaviors?
While in theory this is a decent lesson, as a career educator I see the value in the preparation we discussed earlier in the week.  It is imperative that these types of interactive lessons have been discussed prior to the day of the actual lesson; which is why parental/guardian signed permission slips are essential to the success of the lesson, because the safety is in place for the students.  The participants in this institute, all adults, should have been extended the safety and consideration of being asked if there were any religious, physical, etc. considerations that would prohibit anyone from participating in this lesson.  Actually, there were exceptions to the first two considerations.  Who knew?  Who asked?  Who cared?  As educators, we are obligated to care because we are obligated to provide safety for all our students…regardless of age.
Nonetheless, this lesson provided Will with the most excitement about a lesson since I have been an institute participant.  This is exactly what happens with our students when they are engaged in a lesson that touches something in them that inspires them to get involved with learning.  They get excited, ‘take the ball’, and run with it.  How do we as teachers create this type of excitement and desire to learn in all our students for all the subjects?  We probably will not have 100% success across the board in this per se.  However, when we plan, and cover as many bases as possible, taking advantage of as many teachable moments as possible, we should be able to create an interest for our students to the point where they at the very least tap into their innate appreciation for learning…all the subjects and about life as much as possible.

RecycleJack Marine's picture

When is warmer bad?

Drinking the red Bordeaux warmed me up...I liked that Earthy taste!


On another note, I wanted to share this with you: We are all experiencing the consequences of Global Warming. Some people think it's B-S, but if you think it's real, think about how you process the recent hot weather. We are inside in temperature-controlled rooms. When you go outside...whew!


The Earth is warming and its weather is changing too. Check it out here!


THINK about it.....

Wil Franklin's picture

Initial Reflection


As they say in business... location, location, location. In education it translates to something like... topic, topic, topic. While I think it is hard to go wrong with the topic of wine, there are a few aspects worth pointing out that I tried today because of my conversations with all of you over the years.

First, yes, topic helps. But we will all encounter some topics that we will need to or even want to cover that may not be so instantly engaging.  One thing Paul and I have discussed regarding the issue of covering less appealing topics is the importance of finding something, anything, about the topic that interest you... the teacher.  That interest will translate into interest in students.


Second, I tried to take the interesting facets and turn it into a problem solving activity. For whatever reason (worth thinking more about) humans are engaged in problem solving.  Among other things, I think a problem to solve immediately sets a context and goal for the subsequent activities... a scaffolding, if you will, to loop back to as needed.


Lastly, which I really explored last summer institute, is the practice of creating space for learners.  Space in this context is mostly time for individuals to wrestle in their own way with problems, concepts and language. I place "formative assessment question" scattered throughout the lecture component to force me to take that time and space.  But, once I started using these pauses, I realized how interesting I found my student's responses.  Once I, as a teacher, began really conversing with students, I could not return to my old habits - so lopsided and boring. Furthermore,  space in the language of conversation is the ability to listen and reflect before acting.  Space is giving your neighbors a chance to voice views and a chance to hear your own "other" voices (in a plural selves sense).

Thanks again for the feedback and looking forward to exploring further the issues of diversity, inquiry and conversation as it applies to education.

Mattie Davis's picture

Making the Unconscious Conscious

Wil Introduced the lesson.  We were given an overview of expectations, related reading information, hands on materials, lectures, charts and diagrams, plus time to interact with each other.  Discussion took place.   All members of the group participated.  A written inquiry of conscious knowledge prior to the lesson was given.  We completed the lesson and the exact written inquiry was given again.  Though the group considered itself as novice in wine tasting, after we were directed in how to use information we thought we probably did not have, to complete the inquiry, results indicated that the group's responses improved.  Our interaction involving information located in the unconscious  appeared to become integrated with observations that were already located in our consciousness.  

Susan Dorfman's picture

Wine Tasting: Eliciting perpetual consciousness

The overall flow of Wil's presentation was a joy to experience. He started us reading an article designed to provoke us to make the connection between the tasting activities we would do and the instructional changes to which we aspire. He allowed us the time to share compelling ideas elicited by the article but did not allow the conversation to become the activity. He did this without shutting us down because his excitement about what we were soon to try was palpable and infectious. His demeanor informed us that the best was to come. The lab set-up was organized to allow us to easily follow his verbal and projected procedure. The materials were colorful and in an arrangement that gave us space to work; in other words, the set-up was inviting and engaging. My Middle school students love a tray with materials that are colorful, organized and easy to identify. I could imagine them approaching Wil’s set-ups with exclamations of excitement. He gave us enough background information to serve as tools for the problem he set before us to solve. We had a first attempt with little direction, an additional activity to train us, and then a second try to solve the problem based on our first attempt and new information. The progression was logical and encouraging, with enough discrepant events to permit learning. He made it safe for us to rely on our unconscious and slowly bring our initial unconscious decision to the level of a more informed, conscious decision. We shared our observations along the way, so there was feedback so important to the co-constructive approach. Wil kept a check on our progress through conversation and questions and made mid course corrections in his approach where appropriate. His planning and structure were enough to engage without being overbearing and inhibiting.

The article, “Mmmm…not Aha! Imaginative vs. Analytical Experiences of Wines,” by John Dilworth made the point that the words used in wine tasting suggest that it is semi-scientific. He suggests that there is an imaginative component as well. It occurred to me that this is true in medical practice as well. The words are so technical and specific that patients can erroneously assume that medical diagnosis and treatment are “scientific” and exact. There is an imaginative component that makes medical diagnosis an art based on a story arrived at by experimentation and shared data.  As teachers, we need to choose out words and phrases carefully to reveal the uncertainty that characterizes any body of information still under exploration.

The article’s author describes both conscious and unconscious components of wine tasting; the conscious part involves the sensory qualities, and the unconscious part, the enjoyment. Both, he states, contribute to wine tasting. In the classroom, we offer our students information and activities to appeal to the conscious brain but have to remember that their unconscious brains approach the classroom experience with its own stories. If we daily create a positive classroom experience, then our students will be more likely to prosper from the classroom experience both in a positive approach to their science education and greater understanding of the local and global shared summaries.

The author makes further distinction between routine and sophisticated tasting. The routine tasting is prevalent when the taster is involved in another activity such as conversation over a meal. In this state, the taster will observe large grain differences like spoiling of the wine or pleasantness. The experience moves away from the conscious state. In sophisticated tasting, there is a perpetual consciousness like that needed in problem solving.  The take-home message for the classroom is that activities and conversations need to include problem solving opportunities to bring student attention to the conscious level. Wil modeled this type of classroom experience well.


Wil Franklin's picture

Link to Medicine

Just a quick note... never thought of the overlap with medicine, but does seem to be a useful way to think about technical language, in general. Thanks for the connection.

joycetheriot's picture

Fantastic Voyage

Wil’s workshop was so fantastic! We traveled across so many science domains: earth, chemistry, botany, meteorology, biology, neurology…etc.  What a whirlwind tour! The central topic could easily be connected to so many inquiry pieces. Wil was expertly delivering information, giving time for comments and questions, and keeping interest at a high level. I specifically noticed that he expanded and gave value to each person’s input as well as immediately catching when someone needed more attention. We were all engaged in this challenge of discovering where the wines were made and that aspect gave excitement. There was also an important social connection to learning about wines in that it may advance your ability to start conversations in group gatherings.  This is a vital skill to develop in our culture -not to mention a key component of the Summer Institute.
Wil first organized the materials in advance of our participation. This is a good management tool, in addition, it heightens the curiosity and interest in what’s about to happen. The placement of the materials also allowed us to easily understand the work to be done spatially rather than reading a set of instructions. In many classrooms students can get bogged down in language and possibly lose that first rush of excited anticipation. During the lab portion some steps were done individually to engage a learning process that was comfortable for each person but there were points all along where the whole group was connected so Wil could give information or keep the group on track. No one was left behind.  The web resources used were appropriate, valuable and engaging. Content information was delivered without any lost momentum. Wil continued to value comments and answer fully all questions. He moved through the entire workshop with a confident, pleasant and experienced style. His belief in the significance of his material was apparrent and was transferred to his audience seemingly without effort. Valued by all facilitators, this skill alone was a striking success.
I really enjoyed the workshop even though I have only a slight interest in wines. Wil gave so many aspects to this subject that I think all were totally engaged. Wil was an excellent model for all of us, wonderful work that I will remember.


Kim Fuller's picture

Can you get their attention from the beginning

One of the things that I love to do is have a meal with friends. It is always good to have good conversation with them on a topic that everyone is engaged in. most seem to stop long enough to order their food and drinks. When your food and or drinks comes and someone takes a taste and find that what their tasting is wonderful, it will stop the conversation and a renewed conversation will begin about what it is your are drinking or eating that is so good. that is the same with a teacher. There could be much conversation going on in the class room before the teacher comes in to the class but if he or she is good they can command the attention of the class with out being loud or rude. Educators must find a way to walk into there class and capture the attentions of the students with something relating to the class that is exciting. if you are an exciting teacher you can get and hold the attention of your students.

Kim Fuller's picture

Thanks Will

It was my play bother Dale that introduced me to wine. We were sharing a house and he brought home some wine. now up to that point in my life the only wine that I had tasted is a Sangria wine. I will never for get the the wine that he brought home was not sweet and I thought how in the world can any body drink this wine. I said that to him that this was junk and I hated it. He said to me you have to develop a taste for this wine, So some years later I started to develop a taste for White wine. For some reason I have always liked Champagne. I called my self graduating in the wine world. Much to my surprise I ended up liking many different types of wine. I all ways wanted to go to a real wine tasting but could not afford one and did not have the time to do it. It was a pleasure to be a part of a wine tasting even if I did not taste the wine. I wanted to see if I could figure out what wine was what just but smelling the wine. You could not tell me that I would have gotten them all wrong. but I did. but it was enlighted to be able to try and learn about the different regions that the wine come from, and why certain wines grow a certain way. It was most enlightened to learn how wine has to grow. what makes for a sweet wine and a dry wine.The Sun is powerful.  So Thanks again Will for doing this today.




RecycleJack Marine's picture

Nothing boring about bordeaux wine.

My hat's off to Wil Franklin for sharing his talents of wine sampling with our class today. As we sampled different wines, we based our opinions on our unconscious palates. This lesson was multi-faceted and well explained. Wil modeled for us how to use the materials and how to sequentially taste both the different waters, spit cup, and five various wines. WE had no idea what we were tasting except from prior experiences in drinking wine. I am no wine conniseur, but I've tasted hundreds of various bottles in my life. The first time I ever got drunk was while drinking red Spanish wine at a bar in the city of Krakow, Poland in 1976. Since then I have always favored a rich red type of wine. I discovered a Bordeaux red wine variety today that is exactly what I like: Earthy, slightly acidic taste.

This was hands-on exploartion at its best. We were sent out to decipher the different wines sole through our own devices. In these kids of lessons, students learn by doing, and after the investigation is complete, we go over the results and draw conclusions. I think this models what Paul referenced when he put the "crack" into his modified Scientific Method design: We were able to go back a test our new hypothesis, armed with hints of which wine performed which ways.

Kudos to Wilfred Franklin- Wine Specialist Extraordinaire!



RecycleJack Marine's picture



Jessica Watkins's picture

"Tasting" From Afar: Central Processing

Although I did not partake in today's wine tasting, I found Wil's presentation and quality of material very engaging and interesting.  I had no idea that so much science (weather patterns, geographic location, acidity and chemical levels) went into the art of making and enjoying fine wine, and I can no longer say that this activity is only limited to those with money at their fingertips and a "special" sense of smell or taste.  The opening background reading was informative and personally relevant because it integrated my interest, psychology, into the wine tasting process.  The article's mention of unconscious processes becoming conscious when problem solving is involved reminded me of central processing, something I learned about in introductory psychology this past year.  For example, take somebody who is looking to buy a car and sees a car commercial on television.  Since the idea of buying a car is highly relevant to them they will be judging the commercial based on its argument and the authority of the person in it (more "serious" characteristics that one would think would lead to a good, informed decision about the quality of the car).  Now take somebody who sees the same car commercial, but is not actively looking to buy a car.  Since the commercial does not represent something important to them, they will engage in peripheral processing in which they make a judgement based on things like whether or not the car is aesthetically-pleasing or endorsed by a celebrity.

In the context of education, this is important because it bolsters the idea that students will pay more attention (and thus learn/remember the material better) if they find the topic relevant or personally interesting.  To help carry this out in the classroom, things like hands-on activities or self-designed experiments might be helpful because it would allow students to explore in their own way and take on the material individually.

jpfeiffer's picture

Thoughts about today...

I thought Will's presentation today was quite excellent on all fronts. Even as a spectator and not as an active participant in the project, my attention was still captured and I feel as though I learned a lot.

His lecture was extremely informative but it was also simultaneously engaging. Rather than simply throwing a wealth of information to his audience, Will structured his lesson around inquiry. Rather than informing his students where each wine was from he allowed them to explore for themselves, supplying them with background information that facilitated discussion. Not only was the information that was presented in his presentation conducive to the task at hand, but in addition he also offered additional information that they could carry away from today’s session and use in the future.

Also, even when lecturing, Will engaged all of his audience, challenging them with questions that summarized and made them apply information they had just learned. There was also an array of images, graphs, and tables that were implemented to convey information rather than just constantly speaking or providing an overhead presentation with nothing but words.

I think the take home message for the day is that wine and wine-tasting are much more interesting and accessible to many participants than they were yesterday!



Judith Lucas-Odom's picture

Allowing the Unconscious to mingle with the Conscious

Today's conversation was very well thought out and it flowed together.  Wil was able to get my conscious to relate to my unconscious through the various inquiry activities.  I was able to understand why, when I see, smell, or taste something, it sometimes relates to past memories.  If I smell lavender this experience takes me to a peaceful place.  I/my unconscious sees this smell as relaxing and pleasant.  Even for a not so favorite smell, like a rotten egg smell; I think of when I had to put a lot of garbage out when I was younger that was moldy and stinky, I go back to an unpleasant time.   I especially like how Wil set the stage by giving us a short story to read about, one man's interpretation of how the interacting of the conscious and unconscious works for similar experiences within him.  This will be a great inquiry activity which will start a conversation on differences and similarities that all people have using the senses and past/present experiences.  I enjoyed the review of the tongue because it related what I just read to the activity of how I taste.  My taste is a combination of smell, background information, taste and most of all my unconscious creating a story that brings it all together with my conscious.   Bon appetit!, Wil, I truely enjoyed the meal you prepared for my conscious and unconscious!

GShoshana's picture

Unconscious and Conscious Enjoyment of Wine

The wine tasting was important in making us bring an unconscious sense into our conscious.  Wil allowed us to enjoy the activity individually (we all had different tastes that we enjoyed) and collectively (he provided us with many facts about the wine and grape physiology).  I enjoyed the lesson because he began it with a preparation reading that gave us some background (a story), then followed it with a physical experience and information session.  This strengthened what we were learning in my mind because of the mix of different types of activities and learning; we were all involved.  This is important in the classroom for any topic because it engages and excites students and strengthens ideas in their mind; it also allows them to focus and concentrate more.  If they participate in a memorable activity, they are more likely to remember what they learned.  We were allowed to explore and come to our own conclusions before he told us the "right" answer.

kgould's picture

 I tasted the wine after the

 I tasted the wine after the session (a little nervous, recently having turned 21, I had never had wine before...)

But after watching Wil's presentation and understanding better the anatomy and physiology of both the human tongue/ taste receptors and the grapes, I knew I had to try it. 

The idea of so many different variables changing the wine one way or another, of the temperature and the climate and the degree days, to create a complex bouquet-- it's absolutely amazing. 

On that same train of thought, here is a link to a Japanese manga (a comic book) that has won awards and has been serialized by several different newspapers and magazines. It is all about wine, about how it changes and grows, the science of its taste and flavor, of the people that devote their lives to it. It's a wonderful piece of art and I highly recommend it.

Kami no Suzuku (The Drops of God)

RecycleJack Marine's picture

No Wine-O

Hey Kate!

I waited until I was 21 to get a drink in a bar in Pennsylvania. But I was 20 when on a trip to Poland, I drank enough red wine to get seriously drunk! But I am impressed that you waited until you were 21. By the way, you'll find a wine you enjoy drinking, if you choose to drink wine. I think all wines have a funny taste (unless they're sweet), but they all make you feel good!



cdivo39's picture


I thought Wills' dialogue today was very informative and clear in regard to the various types of wines, their fermentation and history.  I dont think many people equate wine drinking with conscious and unconscious thought.  We drink it because we enjoy it's flavor, taste and the way it makes us feel.  Although at times we do drink it for conscious reasons; to dull our senses, to make us forget, or to elevate our spirits.  Consciously or unconsciously, as the old saying goes, 'liquor is quicker.'

Keith Sgrillo's picture


Wow Will! What a lesson.  This has reinforced for me what I truely believe educational experiences should be.  Like your fine wines, a truly sublime combination of flavor, body, and texture.  There was something for everyone.  Very impressive and I feel really embodies the "spirit" (as Paul called it) of the institue.  The entire process felt to me as if I was determining what I was to get out of this.  Even the reading, which was predetermined, was presented in a way that I was making my own meaning of what I was reading, and then lended itself to co-constructive conversation.
One of the connections I made to the article, activity, and discussion was to one of my favorite books (which admittedly I have not finished yet) called "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" by Oliver Sacks. This book contains many of Mr. Sacks' experiences helping people with different brain "differences."  In one case, a man has no ability to differentiate between peoples faces, whether in person or a picture.  In one humorous anecdote, when Dr. P. is leaving a room, he tries to pull his wife's head off and wear it as a hat.  He had mistaken his wife for a hat.  However, when he begins to play music on his piano, his ability to identify people comes back to him.  But only in that moment.  I think this idea that Will has brought to the table really has a big part in finding a way to bring the unconscious to the subconscious.  If we are able to make our students aware not only of devient behaviors, but those positive ones we may begin to break down many challenging barriers that exist. 

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