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Exercises In Taste

( Originally Published 1907 )

THE German Physiologist, Valentin, could detect bitter at 100,000th of a solution of quinine. " Taste can be educated, as the nice discriminations of the professional tea-tasters show. In subconscious conditions it is also abnormally acute."— Text Book.


A discriminating mind in taste;
A cultivated mind in taste;
Willed attention habituating the Mood of Will.


The ordinary individual," remarks Mary Whiton Calkins in " An Introduction to Psychology," " asked to name what he had tasted at dinner, might respond with some such list as the following: beef-bouillon, roast duck, potato, onion, dressed celery, peach ice and coffee. But the psychologist would conclude at once that some of the tastes enumerated were complex experiences, made up of simpler elements. He would take means to isolate, so far as he could, the conditions of tastes, so that other sense-elements should be shut out from consciousness. He would select, as subject of the experiments, a person without smell-sensations, or else he would close the subject's nostrils, so as to eliminate most of these smell sensations; and he would certainly blindfold the subject, to pre-vent his seeing the articles which he tasted. These substances would be presented to him at an even temperature, and the solids would be finely minced so as to be indistinguishable in form. Judging by the results of actual experiments, the results of such a test as applied to our suggested menu, would be the following: the blindfolded and anosmic (without smell sensations) subject would as likely as not suppose that he had tasted chicken broth, beef, potato, an unknown sweetish substance, another unknown material mixed with a thick tasteless oil, a sweet unflavored substance and a slightly bitter liquid — perhaps a dilute solution of quinine. A normal person, also blind-folded, but without closed nostrils, would recognize the onion, the peach, the coffee and often the olive oil; but would be as likely to confuse the beef and the duck; whereas, if these were unsalted, the anosmie subject would fail to recognize them even as meats.

" What we know of the different tastes are complex experiences, made up of odors, motor experiences, pressure and pain sensations, visual elements and a far more limited number of taste-elements than we ordinarily suppose. The odor is the significant element in such `tastes' as egg, milk, fruit, wine, onion, chocolate, coffee and tea. Tea and coffee are, indeed, undistinguished from quinine, when the odor elements are excluded, and are differentiated from each other only by the slight astringency of the tea, that is by the peculiar pressure experience, the 'puckering,' which it excites.

" The number of tastes seems to be four: sweet, salt, sour and bitter. But of the physical stimuli of taste-sensations we know even less than of the indefinitely localized physiological organ. Chemically distinct substances may even arouse the same sensational quality, for example, both sugar and acetate of lead give a 'sweet' taste. Only one general statement may be hazarded : the taste stimulus is always in liquid form. If the tip of the tongue be carefully dried, a crystal of sugar placed upon it will seem tasteless, until the tongue again becomes moist enough to dissolve it."

The experiments and investigations which have given us the meagre knowledge we have on the subject of taste-sensations and their brain-area (little known), have all involved attention, discrimination, judgment, and so on. The object of the exercises in the present chapter has exactly similar ends in view — but above all, such work under direction as may make you the better acquainted with yourself and give to you a greater scope of consciousness and self-control.

The tongue tastes; it also feels.

The sensation of touch is often confounded with that of taste. During a heavy cold in one's head the tongue feels much, but tastes little. Aerated water gives the tongue a lively sensation of touch or feeling. Alum " draws " it. Pepper irritates it to burning. Some strong sweets are slippery. Some strong bitters are smooth. Cold food is lacking in the taste of warmer. The sensation produced by very cold water is largely that of feeling. Luke-warm coffee is not enjoyable because the aroma of its steam and the cold of ice are absent. The facts suggest some experiments.

Remember that the greatest mind is one which has, through the five senses, grasped the most of the outside world.

Exercise No. z. Procure a piece of alum. Merely touch it with the tongue. Now try to perceive its taste in distinction from its feeling. Repeat this exercise with other " puckery " substances. Repeat these experiments every day for ten days, with rest of two days, and on the tenth day observe improvement.

Exercise No. 2. Close the nostrils between the thumb and forefinger, and, touching the tongue with some " puckery " substance, try to perceive the taste. Is the idea of taste real or imaginary? Repeat with various similar articles. Repeat these exercises every day for ten days, with rest of two days, and on the tenth day note improvement.

Exercise No. 3. Place a little pepper on the tongue. Try to distinguish the taste from the irritation. Is there any difference? Repeat with other substances which "burn" the tongue. Repeat these exercises every day for ten days, with rest of two days, and on the tenth day note improvement.

Exercise No. 4. With white sugar or syrup placed on the tongue, try to distinguish whether the slippery feeling or the sweet taste is first perceived. Repeat these exercises every day for ten days, with rest, and on the tenth day note improvement.

Exercise No. 5. Sweeten equally two glasses of water. Let a friend, while you are not observing, place in one glass a minute quantity of quinine or other bitter substance. Now taste and note which glass contains the drug by observing the greater sweetness of the water in which it has been placed. The quantity of " bitter " may be increased until additional sweetness can be perceived. If the water begins to taste bitter before increased sweetness is perceived, the experiment has failed. But do not be discouraged. Repeat until success is reached. Repeat these exercises every day for ten days, with rest, and on the tenth day note improvement.

Exercise No. 6. Try to recall, with great vividness —with the vividness of reality — from memory, the taste of various articles— sugar, lemon, quinine, onions, cheese, etc. Note whether one taste is recalled more vividly than another. Is such recalled taste always associated with a mental picture of its object, or is it abstract? Does the memory seem to be located in the brain or on the tongue? Whether in the brain or on the tongue, is it associated with some past experience? Now think of the tongue, and try to place the remembered sensation, abstracted from all past experience, there alone. That is difficult, but it can be done. Repeat these exercises every day for ten days, with rest, and on the tenth day note improvement.

Exercise No. 7. Procure six articles that are fragrant and six articles that have a pleasant taste. Arrange in pairs — one article of smell with one of taste, and so on until all are thus paired. Take one pair, and compare the sensation of smell with that of taste. Note similarity and difference between the sensations. Repeat with each pair. Repeat these experiments with articles that are odoriferous but not fragrant, and articles that have not an agreeable taste.

Now note whether, in all tests with pairs of articles, the effect upon the " mind" is greater when the sensation is that of smelling than when it is that of tasting. Then note whether the difference or similarity of sensation is greater in the case of the first six articles (fragrant and pleasant) or in the case of the second six articles (odoriferous and unpleasant). What is the reason for the facts? Repeat these exercises every day for ten days, with rest, and on the tenth day note improvement.

Why is a meal of the same kind which is eaten in solitude with the same degree of hunger vastly less agreeable in itself than when eaten among pleasant companions? If this is not true, you evidently need lessons in sociability. With most people it is true. Eye, nose, tongue have changed not. Yet the meal looks better, smells better, tastes better. Is this due to imagination? Is there not, rather, a mutuality of ministration among the senses which requires the inspiration of friends to bring it fully out? A good eye, a good nose and a good tongue make a trinity of dining felicity. Add, then, a good heart and a pleasantly active soul, and the function of Will-power in the realm of vision, hearing and taste is discovered.

Exercise No. 8. While dining with friends, make the exercises of this chapter the subject of conversation and experiment so far as consistent with the business in hand, namely, dining in the most agreeable manner.

Exercise No. 9. It is a human privilege to put the soul into bodily sensations, or to withdraw it there-from. In the one case the word is attention, in the other case it is abstraction. The following exercise deals with abstraction.

Secure the sensation of any taste or any smell. Now resolutely try to recall from memory some other different sensation so vividly as to banish the first from mind. For example: smell of a rose, and then think strongly of the odor of onions. You must entirely forget the flower while thinking of the vegetable. Or, taste a little sugar, and then put the sensation out of mind by recalling the memory of wormwood. Or the senses may, as it were, be crossed. Smell of a pink and banish the sensation by strong thought of the taste of pepper. Or taste alum and think about the smell of ammonia so keenly as to banish the first sensation. Repeat these exercises every day for ten days, with rest, and on the tenth day note improvement.

After all, abstraction is only another name for attention — withdrawn from one quarter by being massed upon another. Whoever attends intelligently and masterfully to eye, nose, tongue, has either new worlds of pleasure or new guards against displeasure. Above all, has this person Will. Attention cultivated involves Will always present.

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