Language shapes reality. The words that we use to describe physical things and abstract ideas help shape how we see them. The way we express our thoughts clarify what we are thinking. The words that we use to describe flavors change what and how we taste.
Case in point: how many times have I been to a wine tasting or shared a bottle with company, listened to someone else say that they taste mushroom flavors, and suddenly find myself recognizing mushrooms in the wine, too? Partly power of suggestion, perhaps, but not entirely so; if myself come up with a descriptor to which I can put a name, I find myself coming back to that flavor over and over again. Even if other, unspecified flavors are equally (or more) prominent, my brain has a handle — a specific word — to draw it back to the flavor I recognize.
What if I had (gasp!) never eaten mushrooms? I would never come up with the notion that a wine tasted like mushrooms, and I wouldn’t be able to recognize what someone else meant if they called a wine “mushroomy.” Drawing on different sensory experiences, I might call the same mushroom-like flavor “earthy” or “meaty.” But if I define a given sensation as “earthy” instead of “mushroomy,” does that change the way I sense that flavor? Will my brain use its repertoire of stored sensory experiences to make its perception of the flavor in my mouth more like the sensory memory with which I have associated it?
So, a teenaged girl from the Languedoc, a civil engineer from Kansas City, a physical education teacher from Brussels, a Nepalese farmer, and an Egyptian nurse walk into a bottle of Australian Shiraz. Do they all taste the same thing?
Other musings from Freakonomics at the NY Times.