January 14, 2008

The Price of Taste (& Pain)

A mere 20 people in the experiment but interesting results nonetheless, supported by MRI mapping of the reactions in the brain. (Amazing that a prestigious journal like Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences will accept a study with 20 people. Statistically its hardly enough to give you separation of the means.)

Apparently, raising the price really does make the wine taste better.

At least that seems to be the result of a taste test. The part of the brain that reacts to a pleasant experience responded more strongly to pricey wines than cheap ones — even when tasters were given the same vintage in disguise.

Antonio Rangel and colleagues at California Institute of Technology thought the perception that higher price means higher quality could influence people, so they decided to test the idea.

They asked 20 people to sample wine while undergoing functional MRIs of their brain activity. The subjects were told they were tasting five different Cabernet Sauvignons sold at different prices.

However, there were actually only three wines sampled, two being offered twice, marked with different prices. A $90 wine was provided marked with its real price and again marked $10, while another was presented at its real price of $5 and also marked $45.

The testers' brains showed more pleasure at the higher price than the lower one, even for the same wine, Rangel reports in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

He added that wine professionals would probably be able to differentiate the better wine — "one would hope."

"Our results suggest that the brain might compute experienced pleasantness in a much more sophisticated manner that involves integrating the actual sensory properties of the substance being consumed with the expectations about how good it should be," the researchers reported.

Next step: pain.

Rangel wants to see if people perceive pain differently, depending on their expectations. He hopes to administer mild electric shocks to subjects and measure their reaction when told a shock was going to be stronger or weaker. "We are trying to understand how the brain encodes experiences and what variables can manipulate this," he said. "It helps us understand what it means to be human."

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