The Sense of Taste

The Sense of Taste
Title: The Sense of Taste
Release Date: 2019-03-17
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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Our Senses Series—Editor, G. Van N. Dearborn
Associate Professor of Psychology in Columbia University
Instructor in Psychology in Columbia University

Copyright, 1917, by

Published April, 1917

L. S. H.
F. K. P.



Few people, comparatively, however intelligentand generally thoughtful, have as yet stopped toconsider the surpassing interest and the uniqueimportance of Our Senses. Living gateways asthe sense organs are between ourselves and ourever-changing surroundings, both spiritual andmaterial, they constitute the channels not only ofour life-satisfaction, but of all our immediateknowledge as well. If, then, in discussing them,biological imagination and breadth and depth gohand in hand with technical knowledge of thehighest grade, the volumes comprised should beboth human and scientific. And these volumesare so, and will be. It is because of such possibilitiesthat a series like the present, authentic yetinteresting and inexpensive, must appeal to theintelligent man or woman of to-day. As contributionsto psychology and to education their value iscertain to be great, as indeed is indicated by thelist of their authors, whom it would be superfluousto praise or even to portray.

Small in number are the topics in all the wondrousrange of the science of living things thatare more alluring for their very mystery andromance than these same gateways by which weviiimay go out into “our world” and by which thissame great world may come into us and, for thelittle span of life, lend us a feeling of home-dwelling.

Within the past decade there has been a generalpopular awakening from the former uninterestedattitude toward these phenomena of thephysical and mental processes by which we keepin touch with the things outside ourselves. A fairknowledge of the rudiments of biology, of physiology,and of psychology now has become part ofthe curriculum of our schools and colleges. Andof these three sciences it is psychology which hasentered so deeply into our everyday life—businesslife as well as personal—that at last no one canescape its influence. And no one wishes to, forpsychology in a sense has become the intellectualhandmaiden of all who think in terms of to-day,with to-day’s amazing development of insightinto the mortal meanings of our very selves, bodyalways as well as soul. Our scientific realizationof our true continuity with all things else goeson apace, and our personal relations to the boundless,perhaps Infinite, Cosmos of consciousness,life, and energy seem ever clearer. Thus, in away, the sense organs give us personal anchoragein a Sea which else sometimes, from its very immensityand stress, would overwhelm us. Ourrange, although the broadest as yet vouchsafed toixlife, is as it were but a mere line out into the complexityof the Actual. The first step to the appreciationof this complexity and its implications forthe human mind is knowledge of the conditionsof its acquirement,—of the sense organs and ofthe perplexing brain behind them.

Editorial duty or privilege fails to know muchas yet of the detailed contents of these severalvolumes. But the editor does know not a littleabout the arrangers and expounders of the volumes’contents, and he knows that they are womenand men of conspicuous sense—trustworthy inevery sense. The books are the best of their kindand are in a class by themselves. They are thestandard authority for ordinary use. These volumeswhen disposed as a red-backed set on one’slibrary shelf will be a set of books to be proud of.And the high school boys and girls and theirfathers evenings and on Sundays and theirmothers at the club all alike will think of them ashighly valued friends, both wise and agreeable, aspleasant to meet for an hour as the most welcomevisitor well could be. No higher “authority”exists than that which these authors represent;and it would be hard to find those who could setforth “authority” more gracefully. Each knowsthat literary enjoyment usually goes hand in handwith that wisdom which extended is the directorof Life itself.

xAlthough the sense of taste is more strictly a“biological” sense than any of the other simplesenses of man—that is, more particularly concernedwith the underlying bodily life—it plays,nevertheless, a very important part in our personalpsychology. Many of us find in tasting oneof the fairly dependable satisfactions of oureveryday living; and Satisfaction, it seems uponlong reflection, comes pretty close to being thelong-sought “highest good.” The wholly needlessand harmful bodily overweight of many of usattests how often this sense is made a malignantfetish to lure us evilward. Eve tasted—andin that alluring moment set an example tooplain and too significant ever to be ignored.The sense of taste, none the less, is a whollyrespectable and dignified mode of obtainingsatisfaction.

And our respective “research magnificent”would not be quite so interesting, not so adventuresome,were our sense of taste, instead of aclear sense experience tingling always with somekind of satisfaction, were it, I say, only a subconsciousinstinct, part of the original organic natureof man, working in the dark of consciousness.And for a few of us, especially if we be chefs, orcooks, or tea-tasters, or dyspeptics, or epicures,or gluttons, or taste-perverts, and the like, tasteis, perhaps, one of the most important of all mortalxiexperiences and of all scientific themes. Andto the children how much it is!

Professor Hollingworth and his Columbiacolleague, Doctor Poffenberger, have written avolume which seemingly would satisfy both thescientific reader and the general readers whofrom curiosity seek its information. The businessman as well as his wife sitting beyond theliving-room table will both find the somethingthey hoped to find; and the keen school teacherand the all too infrequent schoolmaster will findpart of that material for the development of intensivesense-training now obviously indispensableto the further evolution of our school system. Foreven taste, least intellectual of our senses, can beintensively and hence usefully trained and thuseducation be furthered.

The authors need no introduction to the educatedmillion, but if they did, this book wouldfurnish one which the most exclusive hardly coulddisdain. They are to be congratulated on thesuccess with which they have put much that is atonce interesting and scientific up to the hour intolittle space, with “war-time economy.” Theauthors have covered their field well.

The editor takes this first opportunity to invitecriticism of whatever trend, and to ask for suggestions,whether from sense-gluttons or fromxiiphilosophers, for the better conduct and the furtheranceof this series and of that other series, on“The Life of the Child,” which he is editing. Asis true in a wholly different field of conquest, here,too, lies safety in numbers, and where there aremany men there are many minds. As all authorsat least will hasten to agree, not even an editorknows all that might be known.

Cambridge, Massachusetts,
January, 1917.



The sense of taste is in numerous ways the mostparadoxical of all the senses. Although, as asource of sense impression, it can afford thekeenest immediate feelings of pleasure and delight,the books on æsthetics and art have littleor nothing to say about it. Skill in the compoundingof tastes and flavors, or discrimination in theirrelish, brings the expert neither artistic recognitionnor social eminence. Taste, it is constantlyasserted, is one of the “lower senses,” and neitherin the enjoyment of it nor the ministration to itis there to be acquired the merit and generalesteem that readily distinguish an art from aservice.

Nevertheless we commonly use the word“taste” for the expression of just those qualitiesof fine discrimination and delicate perceptionwhich are most conspicuously the marks of æstheticappreciation. In our choice of figures ofspeech we reserve “vision” for the impersonaland remote intuition of the seer and the philosopher.“Touch” we use to express such intimateand personal impressions as sympathy and pity.xiv“Sound” seems best to indicate, through “noise”or “tone,” either the self-seeking clamor ofaggression or the mere passive possession of acertain richness of quality. “Odor,” in its mostcommon figurative use, suggests the reprehensibleand undesirable motive. “Warmth” and “chill”bespeak at once the depth of emotion or affection.But the special fineness of soul which shows itselfin the active and judicious choice of the appropriateand the harmonious, the subtly fitting andthe delicately adapted, seems best expressed bythe name of one of the “lowest” and most “vulgar”of senses,—“taste.” Whether the judgmentbe exercised in the choice of color harmonyor musical composition, costume or personal ornament,architecture, monument, design or arrangement,poetry or passing jest, rug, menu, pastimeor associates, it is the sense of taste which furnishesthe apt name for the critical capacity.

Not only is it in the usages of language thattaste is a paradoxical sense; it is at the same timeone of the most ancient of the special senses andalso one about which exact knowledge is most difficultto acquire. It seems to afford a multitudeof varying and distinctive nuances of sensation,yet it can boast but a meager equipment of fourfundamental sense qualities. It is a primitive andwell-established sense in the evolution of man, andindividuals might therefore be expected to resemblexveach other closely in their experience of it;yet the most trite of proverbs insists that “thereis no accounting for tastes.” Indeed, in some languagesit is even impossible to find distinctivenames for such common taste experiences as bitteror even salt and sour. A survey of the phenomenaand laws of the sense of taste reveals,in fact, no end of curious and interesting situations.

Of particular interest are the recent demonstrationsof the great importance of taste for the generalwell-being of the organism. With the developmentof civilized modes of living men cease torely implicitly or entirely on the sense of taste intheir discrimination between wholesome and deleteriousfoods. They substitute for taste the evidenceof the commercial trade-mark, the label,and the pure-food guarantee. It might have beensupposed that under such circumstances the senseof taste would deteriorate through loss of function.But recent studies show that sensations oftaste do far more than serve as clues to the acceptanceor rejection of food. Such sensations appear,in fact, to be the initial stimulus to the wholeseries of digestive and assimilative processes onwhich the well-being of the organism depends.In much the same way the dulling or perversionof the taste sensations is often seen to constitutean early warning of grave disorder in the systemxvias a whole, and their restoration to presage thereturn to normal health.

Developing as one of the earliest forms of sensitiveness,intimately associated with the vitalprocesses of life and growth, affording manifoldrichness of pleasure and aversion, full of paradoxicalsurprises and puzzling problems, andfiguratively expressing one of the rarest of humanqualities, “the sense of taste” constitutes one ofman’s most interesting contacts with the outerworld.

In the chapters which follow an attempt ismade to portray this contact in a manner whichis both clear and concrete, yet scientifically accurateand technically complete. There are firstconsidered the actual experiences which the senseof taste affords, their character, their analysis intothe elementary qualities, and the classification,relations, and manner of combination of thesequalities. A consideration of the delicacy of thetaste sense, the precision of taste discrimination,and their methods of measurement, is followed bya discussion of the time relations of taste sensations,and a description of various special

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