The Tongue Map

Status: Urban Legend
image One of the many catalogs I receive is the Wine Enthusiast. On the inside cover of the catalog I received last week is a description of Symphony Stemware wine glasses which are supposedly "designed and shaped to enhance the best characteristics of every wine." Accompanying this claim is a map of the tongue with the following caption:

"The specially designed shape of each glass directs the flow of wine to the proper areas of your palate, emphasizing a wine's best qualities and creating a balanced taste for maximum enjoyment."

Symphony isn't the only company to use a tongue map to promote their glasses. Riedel uses the same gimmick in their marketing. The thing is, from what I understand, the tongue map is a completely bogus idea. The tongue is not divided into taste regions. And even if it were, no glass is going to be able to direct flavors to one specific area of the tongue.

An article from the August 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine ("Shattered Myths" by Daniel Zwerdling... I can't find a link to it), tackled the tongue-map myth at some length and thoroughly debunked it:

"The tongue map? That old saw?" scoffs Linda Bartoshuk when I reach her at her laboratory at the Yale Univerity School of Medicine. Bartoshuk has done landmark studies on how people taste. "No, no. There isn't any 'tongue map.'"
Wait a minute: When you sip Pinot Noir from the correct Riedel glass, won't it maximize the fruit flavors by rushing the wine to the "sweet" zone on the tip of your tongue? When you serve a Chardonnay with too much fruit, won't the correct glass balance the flavors by directing the wine to the "acid" spots near the middle? "Nope," Bartoshuk laughs. "It's wrong." She and other scientists have proved that you can taste salty, sweet, and bitter everywhere on the tongue where there are taste buds. "Your brain doesn't care where taste is coming from in your mouth," Bartoshuk says. "And researchers have known this for thirty years."

The Wikipedia article on taste buds also debunks the idea of the tongue map: "Contrary to popular understanding, taste is not experienced on different parts of the tongue. The 'tongue map myth' was based on a mistranslation of a German paper that was written in 1901 by a Harvard psychologist. Though there are small differences in sensation, which can be measured with highly specific instruments, all taste buds can respond to all types of taste."

Food Urban Legends

Posted on Sun Feb 26, 2006


Also, tongues generally are not that multicolored or triangular.
Posted by eriC draveS  on  Sun Feb 26, 2006  at  05:29 PM
Wow, the all my science books for kids are wrong. I have like eight books with a tongue map in them.
Posted by Dracul  on  Sun Feb 26, 2006  at  05:59 PM
I specifically remember being taught about the "tongue map" in Kindergarten. I thought it was dumb then because I tried the simple test of sticking the tip of my tongue in to baking chocolate powder. 😛

Of course that was before I started going to private school. (Blame LBUSD, I guess.)
Posted by Kelly  on  Sun Feb 26, 2006  at  06:09 PM
Anyone who's ever eaten should know the tongue map is wrong...
Posted by Citizen Premier  on  Sun Feb 26, 2006  at  10:42 PM
I remember being taught about the tongue map in elementary school, so it's not just one public school district to blame!
Posted by thephrog  on  Sun Feb 26, 2006  at  11:17 PM
darn government approved textbooks!~ 😛
Posted by thephrog  on  Sun Feb 26, 2006  at  11:18 PM
Actually, I vaguely remember learning this in primary school, too. So it's a world-wide hoax!
Posted by Smerk  on  Sun Feb 26, 2006  at  11:55 PM
I typed this out last night then hit "submit" and it disappeared :down: so, I will try again.

On the Food Network show "Unwrapped" (admittedly not the most scientific of sources), they were explaining why chili peppers are hot. The idiots explanation (the ones I understand best), basically compared taste buds to locks and different tastes to keys, each key or flavor unlocking a specific lock or taste bud. Now, they did not say anything about a "tongue map" or even that specific areas of the tongue were for specific flavors, only what I said above.

They then went to explain that the compound that gives chili's their fire, "capsaicin", was best compared to a lockpick as in that it could fit into all locks (taste buds). This sounds logical enough to me but the last sentence in the article makes me doubt it's validity.

"Though there are small differences in sensation, which can be measured with highly specific instruments, all taste buds can respond to all types of taste."

damnit, if you can't trust the Food Network, who can you trust?
Posted by Chuck  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  04:42 AM
Aww man, I thought I had found out all the myths perpetuated on me since I was a kid, but this one has slipped through till now.
I had to do an assignment on the tongue map for science class, we all had different soltuions(salty, sweet) and swabs and had to measure everybodies ability in class for detection, correlate stats etc.
Come to think of it, we did get meaningful results too. Did we fool ourselves that much just to pass?
Posted by AussieBruce  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  07:13 AM
NB: There's an HTML error in Miniskirt's posting which is messing up the rest of the comments page.

More to the topic: I'd love to see better cites about the debunking and the research. What if the debunking isn't reliable? If we just accept that one quote, we're as bad as folks who credulously accept any other info-bite.
Posted by cvirtue  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  08:04 AM
Mini Skirt's posts have been removed because he's just spamming anyway.
Posted by Charybdis  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  08:55 AM
I agree that using just one source to debunk a myth is as bad as believing it. But, now that I know to look for it, there seems to be many varied sources of information about it. And they mainly say something similar:- that while some areas may have a slight increase in sensitivity, all taste buds can sense all tastes.

Shall we get onto MSG being the 5th taste sense, or just accept that was just an MSG promotion?
Posted by AussieBruce  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  09:09 AM
I must be old because I've never heard of this. So according to the tougue map, what part sticks to a frozen sign post?
Posted by Captain Al  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  11:48 AM
I don't know. Sometimes when I eat candy (like a lollipop), it seems to taste different on the left side of the tongue than on the right. I'm not entirely convinced.
Posted by Sakano  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  12:24 PM
Sakano Said: "I don't know. Sometimes when I eat candy (like a lollipop), it seems to taste different on the left side of the tongue than on the right. I'm not entirely convinced."

Me too, with me its taste dulls a little bit on my right side. It does it with popsicles too.
I hate it.
Posted by Carter S  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  02:19 PM
I seem to remember something about not being able to taste some things if you hold your nose while eating. I wonder if some wine glasses are better at directing the contents' bouquet than others, thereby making you think you are tasting a difference.
Posted by Blondin  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  02:19 PM
I, too, remember the tongue maps from grade-school health and science books.

However, even if it were true that different parts of the tongue are capable of tasting different flavors, that's still a ridiculous argument for a certain shape of wine glass. No matter what kind of glass (or Mason jar or whatever) you drink from, the wine goes all over your mouth and tongue if you're drinking halfway normally. Doesn't it?

More traditional arguments for certain shapes of wine glasses have to do with things like how much air the wine is exposed to, how fast the carbonation escapes (from sparkling wines), how much the drink gets warmed in the hand (commonly used for brandy snifters), etc., not what happens after you get the wine out of the glass and into your mouth.

I prefer jelly glasses, myself.
Posted by Big Gary on a biology expedition  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  02:55 PM
Well, these special glasses have certainly improved MY experience of wine, I can say that much. I used to only be able to pour wine into my ear, and now it goes into my mouth!
Posted by cvirtue  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  03:30 PM
I had some time to Google and chase references.

While waiting for the kids to go to sleep, I found more about the tongue issue, should you be interested. I think it's fascinating.

NEUROSCIENCE FOR KIDS NEWSLETTER by the University of Washington. The Book Reviews section covers the tongue map myth.

Collection of References Regarding the Chemotopic Organization of Taste -- summary with many citations.

Summary of paper from 1974 with the new info, and how the misunderstanding occurred, with images from the 1901 paper.
Posted by cvirtue  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  06:44 PM
Blondin said: I seem to remember something about not being able to taste some things if you hold your nose while eating. I wonder if some wine glasses are better at directing the contents' bouquet than others, thereby making you think you are tasting a difference.

Yes, I remember something about this, too. And specifically that if you couldn't smell them, then raw apple, raw potato and raw onion actually all taste the same.
Posted by Smerk  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  07:46 PM
Of course u need yr sense of smell to taste food. Have u guys never had a cold? When all food seems a bit tasteless.

I was also taught that we had different taste receptors around our tongues.
Posted by Merve  on  Mon Feb 27, 2006  at  11:27 PM
Thanks for posting this, Alex. I had no idea this was disproved. They're still teaching it in schools--my daughter was learning about this just last year. So, keep up the good fight against ignorance and misinformation!
Posted by aka_donna  on  Tue Feb 28, 2006  at  12:38 PM
Aww man! I remember being taught that in school, too! I never realized I was being hoaxed all this time!

And it ruins one of my favorite jokes too, the one about the cheerleader in biology class who wants to know why semen doesn't taste sweet. 😊

The thing about smell being linked to taste is quite true. That old brain teaser, "If you had to pick one sense to lose, which would you pick?" is a loaded question for that very reason. Most people will pick Smell to lose, reasoning that smell is the sense they rely on the least--not realizing that it's a raw deal, since you would lose about half your sense of Taste along with it.

If you don't believe it, here's an experiment to try: the next time you eat roast beef, hold your nose. The savory flavor of roast beef relies almost entirely on aroma--without the smell, you can hardly detect any flavor at all, just the mass and texture of the meat on your tongue. Honest, it works, try it.
Posted by Barghest  on  Wed Mar 01, 2006  at  02:59 AM
tongue maps have some accuracy, however, there are taste buds on all parts of the tongue that will taste all the different ranges or "flavors" so it's not totally true,
as for holding your nose, the sense of smell will enhance the sense of taste but the lack of smell will not completely remove the taste from an object, so certain bland foods may taste similar if eaten while holding your nose.
Posted by jm  on  Fri Mar 03, 2006  at  09:06 AM
While the current wisdon is that tastbuds for all tastes are distributed almost evenly over the tongue, it is certainly false that there is no significant variation. Fill your mouth with a citrusy New Zealand sauvignon blanc and tell me where you taste the acid. It is concentrated on the sides of the tongue, and not just a little. Of course, there is pooling of the wine in the lower part of the mouth, so the sides would be bathed in it, but fill your mouth and do this test.

John Starrett
Posted by John Starrett  on  Sun Sep 10, 2006  at  11:54 AM
We learned about the taste centres in junior high and I was inclined to call "bullshit" then, because it doesn't make sense that the tongue would have evolved that specificity. (Some help Bittrex would be saving kids from poisoning if there "bitter" centre was faulty!) As for the glasses, it's not so much about where it hits the tongue in terms of taste centres I believe, but rather the amount of surface area allowing the wine to "breathe" and the nose to pickup the bouquet; the amount of surface area exposing the wine to warming, etc. A large portion of taste, especially the most subtle aspects people are seeking with wine tasting, is olfactory. It doesn't hurt that your expensive crystal is nicely handwashed, rinsed and dried, so you taste the wine and not the dishwasher detergent as you might do with your water glass.
Posted by westcoastwinefan  on  Mon Apr 07, 2008  at  06:30 PM
Interesting! I remember being taught about the tongue map when I was in school. I have read abput the the tongue maps from health and science books. Last night when i ate a lollipop it seems to taste different on the right side of the tongue than on the left. However, even if it the above theory is true, that's still a ridiculous argument for a certain shape of wine glass.
Posted by best baked  on  Sat Jul 12, 2008  at  07:37 PM
i don't mean to be a pedant, but "She and other scientists have proved..." needs to be changed to She and other scientists have proven..."
Posted by the27man  on  Sat Dec 06, 2008  at  09:06 AM
who on earth has a triangle tongue that picture is weird 🐍 heehee but i thought it was true ❓nobody knows do you
Posted by dilys  on  Sun Sep 20, 2009  at  10:28 AM
I never learned about a tongue map in school. What schoold did you all go to? haha.. Well, it's good to know that it is not a true representation of how we taste wine. I love the sarcasm in your article. The glass directing the wine to certain parts of your tongue is a ludicrous idea but fun to laugh about.
Posted by Chicago Car Accident Lawyer  on  Fri Dec 03, 2010  at  03:42 PM
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