Thursday, 26 March 2015

Science Myth: The Tongue Has Zones For Different Tastes.

Unfortunately not. All those experiments we did in Junior school? All lies and confirmation bias. The notion that the tongue is mapped into four areas—sweet, sour, salty and bitter—is wrong.  There are five basic tastes identified so far, and the entire tongue can sense all of these tastes more or less equally.
Scientists have identified a protein that detects sour taste on the tongue.  This is a rather important protein, for it enables us and other mammals to recognize spoiled or unripe food.  The finding has been hailed as a minor breakthrough in identifying taste mechanisms, involving years of research with genetically engineered mice. 

This may sound straightforward but, remarkably, more is known about vision and hearing, far more complicated senses, than taste. Only in recent years have taste receptors been identified.  One of the first breakthroughs in taste research came in 1974 with the realization that the tongue map was essentially a century-old misunderstanding that no one challenged.

You might know the map:  The taste buds for "sweet" are on the tip of the tongue; the "salt" taste buds are on either side of the front of the tongue; "sour" taste buds are behind this; and "bitter" taste buds are way in the back.  Wineglasses are said to cater to this arrangement. 

The tongue map is easy enough to prove wrong at home.  Place salt on the tip of your tongue.  You'll taste salt.  For reasons unknown, scientists never bothered to dispute this inconvenient truth.

So, back in school, you were right - you could taste sugar on the back of your tongue.

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