Opinion: the brain enables us to think, breathe, feel, understand, communicate, laugh dance and, yes, enjoy the sensory experience of a craft beer

The human brain is a three-pound lump of protoplasm consisting of about 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Each of these has between 1,000 and 10,000 connections to other neurons, totalling a staggering quadrillion neural connections (or "synapses"). In many ways, it's like a black box that is encased in the cranial cavity completely shut off from the outside world but, in conjunction with the body’s various sensory systems (auditory, visual, chemical etc.), it recreates internal representations or "perceptions" of the external world.

The brain enables us to think, breathe, feel, understand, communicate, laugh and dance. And it is thanks to the brain that you can also reach out, pick up and enjoy a pint of craft beer and have your senses serenaded by its sweet notes of cherry and blackberry that leap from the glass into your nose while citrus dances along your tongue, pursued swiftly by mango, culminating in a grand finale of the two diving into a slightly bitter finish.

While you're enjoying the sensory experience of your pint, a flowing stream of consciousness allows you to ponder over such things as why the barman looked hopping mad when you complained of the rising price of a pint; why your fellow barfly doesn’t seem to follow what you’re explaining to him; and what exactly the girl next to you means when she says to her guy "sorry, but we’re just going in different directions".

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Justin McCarthy hears from independent craft beer brewers about the challenges they face in a market dominated by larger breweries

Thanks to those quadrillion or so synapses, you understand exactly what I am communicating now even though flavours and aromas don’t literally leap, dance, pursue each other or, indeed, dive into things. Likewise, emotions, prices or relationships don’t literally hop, follow or move upwards or downwards

We can crank up the microscope a little to observe the inner mechanisms of cognition and perception working below our words and sentences. What we see is that the concept of motion plays a vital role in understanding and expressing them. This cognitive ability, which underpins understanding and perception, is a subconscious strategy of using one simple concept (in this case motion) to understand more abstract or complex concepts (e.g. flavours, aromas, etc.). This, then, is the cognitive basis of metaphor and is part of our everyday language and thought. In sum, we speak metaphorically precisely because our human brains think metaphorically - and we use motion metaphorically to express our complex and abstract sensory experiences.

Why do flavours flutter or float and scents sweep or sneak in craft beer?

Quality craft beer relies on diversity and uniqueness and is a product of a master brewer's ingenuity and skill to carefully tweak ingredients. Vast numbers of chemical combinations yield limitless subtleties in flavours and aromas. These far exceed the repertoire of adequate vocabulary available to the professional craft beer reviewer/writer. By (unknowingly) exploiting the phenomenon of metaphorical motion, they have a powerful tool to accurately and descriptively portray to their readers the taste and smell qualities they perceive from the hundreds of different craft beers they critique.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, Barbara-Anne McCabe from Bridewell Brewery, Cam Wallace from 8 Degrees and Simon Lynch from Wicklow Wolf Brewery talk craft beer in Ireland

Metaphorical motion across the senses

Perhaps most fascinating is how complexity varies according to the sensory domain being described. Descriptions of vision tend to be far less complex than physical motion descriptions because of the differences in the sizes of the landscapes in which they occur. In other words, an observer’s line of sight would be far smaller than the potentially limitless size of a physical landscape through which a person could actually move.

Take this example: Paul ran down the stairs, out the door, across the field, up the hill, through the bookies and into the pub. Here, Paul follows a complex trajectory of six different sections. It would be difficult to imagine more than two for vision (i.e. "Paul looked out the door and across the field").

Following this logic, we would expect even less complex expressions for taste and smell due to the considerably smaller size of the oral and nasal cavities. In fact, motion expressions employed to express taste and smell are often far more complex than those used in vision and, at times, even those used to describe actual physical motion!

READ: All you ever wanted to know about craft beer

The answer to why this is possible brings us back to that black box and its billions of synapses. Working in unison with sensory receptors on the tongue, palate, oesophagus and nasal cavity, these generate a perceptual landscape of considerable complexity through which it perceives flavours and aromas as moving.

The next time you settle into a nice pint of craft beer and you feel like its tastes and smells are dancing, threading, skipping, skirting or even sneaking, remember it's all a symphony of perception. The senses are the musicians, the brain is the conductor and the tastes and aromas are the music.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ