What wine tasting teaches us about memory and identity

There is a lot to be understood about the nature of identity when we talk about activities which involve refined discernment. This can be wine, cheese, or whiskey tasting, listening to music critically, reviewing or analysing art, or cooking for enjoyment for example. When we perceive the values of an object, we must, to a degree, draw on our experiences and dispositions of the world. We have to match what we are drawing from as the total whole of our sense data against the stock phenomenal ontology we have empirically stored from the world. This allows us to understand the world by the sense we have already made of it, thus meaning we do not have to put in the effort of understanding what we are experiencing like new again and again. For example, when we see a green, roughly triangular object in the distance with a thin brown object below it, we know, from experience (intellectually or empirically) that we are likely perceiving a tree. Upon perceiving it, we will likely assimilate the data of the tree and update our idea of ‘tree’.

This has some interesting implications for identity, however. One of these, which I am interested in exploring here, is the nature of memory, both as its inner life continuity, and as its power in being the conduit between our selves and the external world. Let’s take wine tasting as our example. When you taste a wine, you look at colour (how does the colour make you feel? What does the colour remind you of?), smell (what objects can you detect in the smell? (red fruits? Tobacco? Leather? Apples? Peaches? Straw?) and what memories and images do the smells conjure up?), taste (again, what objects are you tasting? What images and memories does the taste provoke?) and so forth. In this endeavour, we are aligning the experiences of the wine with stored objects of experience from the world.

What is of interest here is the word redolence. When a flavour or smell is so powerfully perceived that it casts our mind back to an earlier memory or feeling. This is a fascinating phenomenon. We must understand at this point that memories are solidified when they are connected to experience, and strengthened also when replayed. This is common knowledge in modern times, but it’s worth thinking about what this can mean in light of the activities of an aficionado.

wine wine wine

Wine tasting (as is pertinent to this discussion) is an activity in which we pursue to explore many aspects of a singular object in great depth. In doing so, we evoke memories from past experience to the present experience. These memories are then made bolder because they have been deliberately re-evoked. In bringing them into play, there is one further detail- they are more efficacious in the becoming of our identity. What makes this so is that part of our identity has to be a correlate of our continuity of memories. “I went to this school”, “I like red wine, I drink it with Nigel and Emma”, “I work in accounts. I hate it, but I enjoy the team I work with”. These all call on our memories to relate to our present to form identity. We may say that a positive person relates positive memories to their current present, whilst a negative person relates unpleasant memories to their present. This is of course an over simplification, but illustrates the point at hand sufficiently.

One further interesting point is that within each activity, there are a limited range of experiences to be evoked. For example, red wines are rich and deep and fruity, they will evoke memories of a certain character. A critic who studied the music of The Cure will undoubtedly have different memories evoked from somebody who listens to Chopin’s nocturnes. It would seem that the narrow pursuit of the wine taster (any aficionado- cigar lover, cheese taster etc) will evoke and contour the memories of their personhood pertaining to a certain character, and within a certain range. That range is the character of the wine, cigar, cheese, so forth.

When we deliberately engage with something by experience, we must lend ourselves to the object. As we relate to the experience of the wine, we navigate our experiences of life up to that point and find experientially inclined memories which help us identify what it is. The further we look, the further we borrow from our life and our dispositions to create correlates between ourselves and the wine. One interesting trade between us and the object is that the more we use our experiences to identify with the wine, the more we assimilate the identity of it, for the more we create a positive relation to it. Our evoked memories are correlated and packaged as relation to the experiences and evocations of the wine.

wine barrel

We can posit that there is an unconditioned ‘otherness’, a space which exists (figuratively) between us and the experience. In this projected space we relate the external object, and also relate the external object back inside. This ‘otherness’, however, has been conditioned by both the external world and the person having the experience. We are positing that there is something which happens in our mind to the particular experience at that time where the experience, in a space of its own, contains-

  1. The experience of the object at that moment
  2. The identity and consciousness of the perceiver
  3. The new form of experience, born from the experience of the object and the relation to the previous experiences and identity of the experiencer

The experience is also always undertaken with certain prior assumptions. Michael Tye claimed that all conscious experience is “poised, abstract, non-conceptual and informationally contained”. Let’s imagine a Buddhist monk meditating. When they go into meditation, they enter their experience with an idea of what they wish to obtain from the meditation. It is also the case, particularly with a vipassana or mindfulness meditation, that the external environment will condition the experience. As you use a high level of focus to pick up all the sensations and objects of your perception, they will become a part of your mood and mental state, meaning that you are always within an environment of influence. The act of focusing mindfully AND deliberately, such as in wine tasting, is an act of selecting the nature of perspectival content.

A meditator can assume a state of mind in which they analyse the object of consciousness, then let it pass on. However dispassionately this is done, it will leave some small impression on us. The wine taster takes the initiative to embrace the sense impression. They say “why let this object of consciousness pass? Instead, take all we can from it”. What the Buddhist is doing is breaking attachment, learning to view life impersonally. What the wine taster is doing is deciding to jump in head first and absorb life. What is interesting to note is how two different acts of perception produce such different results. We could note further that the Buddhist lets memories arise from the depths without being coerced, wholly naturally (or as far as possible), whilst the wine taster cajoles memories pertaining to the character of a selected experience.

Let’s look at the Chinese poet Hanshan. His life is shrouded in mystery, and there are a lot of question marks in his biography. This is partly because he decided to retreat to a mountain. If you read the collection ‘Cold Mountain Poems’, you see a man who spent his life observing the character of a mountain, his place there, and his relationship with it. What is so very interesting is how he spent many years there, yet found fresh experiences constantly. I urge you to read some of his poems, they can be found HERE. This is interesting because it shows that we can engage in a single experience, like the tasting, but no matter how long we absorb it, we still seem to draw more character from it. In choosing to become the aficionado of wine (or anything else), we are choosing which arts and experiences we draw our identity from. We are also choosing to anchor which memories exist more prominently in our mind.

If we draw on Hanshan’s 13th cold mountain poem-

…Let him laugh at me and say:

It’s all foolishness, your work!’

let him go on as he is,

all his life lost making money.

We see that while he draws from his experiences of the world, his memories enforce his character in two directions, positive and negative. That is at least one way of framing the characters of them. Memories aren’t dispassionate objects, they are always inclined to their character by the mind which conjures them up. This shows us that the power of evoking a memory crafts strong feeling in two directions. The seasoned wine taster thus has profound force of mind when approaching life. Outside of the wine tasting room, the memories are taken with the taster. When Hanshan came down from the mountain, he found that his distaste for the world of money and material objects had grown; he had taken his enhanced memories and feelings with him. In the same way, a taster who has evoked many memories of a rich summer’s day from tasting vibrant white wines may have an enhanced experience of real summer days.

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