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Women win by a nose

By mthomas

Research from Brazil has identified women as having significantly more cells in their olfactory bulbs. The authors are careful not to suggest a simple ‘more cells equals better at smelling’ conclusion but it is hard to resist making inferences given some of the male dominated discourses around wine tasting…

Sex differences in the human olfactory function reportedly exist for olfactory sensitivity, odorant identification and memory, and tasks in which odors are rated based on psychological features such as familiarity, intensity, pleasantness, and others. Which (sic) might be the neural bases for these behavioral differences? The number of cells in olfactory regions, and especially the number of neurons, may represent a more accurate indicator of the neural machinery than volume or weight, but besides gross volume measures of the human olfactory bulb, no systematic study of sex differences in the absolute number of cells has yet been undertaken. In this work, we investigate a possible sexual dimorphism in the olfactory bulb, by quantifying postmortem material from 7 men and 11 women (ages 55–94 years) with the isotropic fractionator, an unbiased and accurate method to estimate absolute cell numbers in brain regions. Female bulbs weighed 0.132 g in average, while male bulbs weighed 0.137 g, a non-significant difference; however, the total number of cells was 16.2 million in females, and 9.2 million in males, a significant difference of 43.2%. The number of neurons in females reached 6.9 million, being no more than 3.5 million in males, a difference of 49.3%. The number of non-neuronal cells also proved higher in women than in men: 9.3 million and 5.7 million, respectively, a significant difference of 38.7%. The same differences remained when corrected for mass. Results demonstrate a sex-related difference in the absolute number of total, neuronal and non-neuronal cells, favoring women by 40–50%. It is conceivable that these differences in quantitative cellularity may have functional impact, albeit difficult to infer how exactly this would be, without knowing the specific circuits cells make. However, the reported advantage of women as compared to men may stimulate future work on sex dimorphism of synaptic microcircuitry in the olfactory bulb.

Oliveira-Pinto AV, Santos RM, Coutinho RA, Oliveira LM, Santos GB, et al. (2014) Sexual Dimorphism in the Human Olfactory Bulb: Females Have More Neurons and Glial Cells than Males. PLoS ONE 9(11): e111733. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111733

Full paper can be read (here)



A couple of ‘Smelly papers’

By mthomas

Pretty good evidence that we all live in different smell/taste universes can be found here. The study, from Hiroaki Matsunami (Associate Professor of molecular genetics and microbiology) and colleagues, shows that a single amino acid encoded on one gene can mean a person finds a certain smell pleasant whilst others dislike it. They state; “We found that individuals can be very different at the receptor levels, meaning that when we smell something, the receptors that are activated can be very different (from one person to the next) depending on your genome.” Preference is individual and trends or patterns of activation would be of great interest to companies wanting to pitch products to consumers. However, beyond our tendency to like or dislike a smell, we are pretty limited in terms of our ability to discriminate between them. There appear to be ten basic smell attributes according to Jason Castro and colleagues. These are contextual and involve learning so our preferences are only the start of the story. How we describe the smells we are reacting to is another thing entirely.

Castro J, Ramanathan A, Chennubhotla C. (2013) Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization. PLoS ONE. 

Mainland J, Keller A, Li Y. et al (2013) The missense of smell: functional variability in the human odorant receptor repertoire. Nature. 2014

On a related topic I have just got a copy of Charles Spence’s new book The Perfect Meal and will review it soon



More on Student Drinking

By mthomas

Building on my last post (on student drinking) here is a link to some papers presented at the recent BPS conference. abstracts

Interesting findings from researchers at Northumbria and Sussex Unis include;

Students who engage in sports tend to be more hazardous in their drinking than the general student population but hazardous drinkers who participated in sport reported better cognitive functioning than hazardous drinkers who did not participate in sport. So the various sports clubs at Uni may be populated by hazardous drinkers (perhaps predisposed to binging and/or bingers due to the social context of sports clubs) but their sporting activities may provide a bit of protection against the cognitive effects of booze.

Hazardous drinking students reported lower scores on a measure of psychological well-being compared to non-hazardous drinkers. This contradicts the results of an American student survey.

Non-drinkers are perceived to be less favourable and sociable relative to regular drinkers, with this perception being strongest among heavier drinkers. Interventions that challenge these negative perceptions of non-drinkers (i.e. that they are less sociable) may lead to a reduction in undergraduate’s alcohol consumption.



NUS Alcohol Impact Project

By mthomas

A new initiative from the NUS (supported by the Home Office) is seeking to address problem drinking in UK Universities. The aim is to develop a new accreditation mark for a whole-institution approach to responsible alcohol consumption. It is interesting to note that it is ‘underpinned by social change theory‘ and focuses on promoting a culture of responsible drinking. To do this institutions need to meet criteria such as publishing a high-level statement on responsible alcohol consumption, restricting on/around-campus advertising and running awareness events.

One interesting ‘nudgy’ strategy is the need to evidence the promotion of  a ‘cafe-culture’. Presumably this will emphasise herb teas and intellectual debate rather than binging on sugar saturated caramel frappuccinos and caffeine drenched fizz. It is good to see  oppressive alcohol fuelled initiation rites being challenged in an informed and non-punitive manner. At the moment seven Unis are subscribed to the pilot but I expect many more to follow suit in future.

Link to the project website  here for more info.



Criteria for Accrediting Expert Wine Judges

By mthomas

Robert Johnson continues his systematic critique of judge’s consistency in wine competitions in characteristic style in a paper just published in the Journal of Wine Economics. It is based on findings from his statistical analysis of medals awarded by judges across competitions in the US (which demonstrates correlations not dissimilar to fish predicting financial markets). He proposes criteria for evaluating and accrediting  judges many would welcome, but some may not! The abstract follows;

A test for evaluating wine judge performance is developed. The test is based on the premise that an expert wine judge will award similar scores to an identical wine. The definition of “similar” is parameterized to include varying numbers of adjacent awards on an ordinal scale, from No Award to Gold. For each index of similarity, a probability distribution is developed to determine the likelihood that a judge might pass the test by chance alone. When the test is applied to the results from a major wine competition, few judges pass the test. Of greater interest is that many judges who fail the test have vast professional experience in the wine industry. This leads to us to question the basic premise that experts are able to provide consistent evaluations in wine competitions and, hence, that wine competitions do not provide reliable recommendations of wine quality. 

I guess there a few obvious criticisms that can be levelled, such as the idea that wines will ‘show’ identically across competitions. However, the fundamental notion that judges should demonstrate consistency if awards are to be viewed as meaningful is pretty unassailable. His empirical evidence, that even with vast experience they tend not to, somewhat undermines confidence in all those medals plonked on labels.

Johnson, R. and Jing, c. (2014 ) Criteria for Accrediting Expert Wine Judges  Journal of Wine Economics  Vol 9 No. 1 p62-74

A slightly more philosophical/polemic piece on wine expertise in the light of ‘the long tail hypothesis’ by Arto Koskelo can be found here



Irrational decision making and wine

By mthomas

The work of two of my favourite psychologists, DanielKahneman (alive and thriving) and Amos Tversky (1937-1996) was featured on Horizon this week. The programme explored their Nobel prize winning work which showed that we have two decision making systems; one is fast and intuitive whilst the other is slow and logical. We mostly rely on the former and it is very unreliable. For example, people can be primed with information (a ‘meaningless number’) to pay more or less for a bottle of Champagne. This is because we make our way through our complex world using heuristics (rules of thumb) and these are riddled with biases. Heuristics are necessary because our ability to process information is limited and our world would be overwhelming if we didn’t have some quick ways to deal with events and choices (such as selecting a wine from hundreds in a supermarket). Watch the programme to see how they created behavioural economics which is redefining how our financial and intelligence systems are designed. Perhaps also reflect on wine purchases which tend to be about risk management, familiarity, labels and emotional states rather than laboured logical decision making.




Latest Journal of Wine Economics

By mthomas

I have been very George Clooney towards social media in 2014; neglecting my blog, twitter etc. etc. ad nauseum and ‘doing stuff’ instead. However, the latest issue of the Journal of Wine Economics here has a few papers that might be of interest.

One telling contribution, a paper from Orley Ashenfelter and Gregory V. Jones, suggests that the demand for ‘expert opinion’ on wines from Bordeaux is not just about a thirst for accurate information. The abstract is below;

In this paper, we use unique data from the market for Bordeaux wine to test the hypothesis that consumers are willing to pay for expert opinion because it is accurate. Using proprietary indicators of the quality of the vintage, which are based on both publicly and privately available information, we find that additional publicly available information on the weather improves the expert’s predictions of subsequent prices. This establishes that the expert opinions are not efficient, in the sense that they can be easily improved, and that these opinions must be demanded, at least in part, for some purpose other than their accuracy.

Yet more evidence of the prevalence of pundits wearing ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ and charging punters for the pleasure of admiring them.



ESRC funding

By mthomas

The UEL Research blog has highlighted an ESRC call for research on alcohol misuse with around a million pounds available for the right projects;



Celebrating Success and Psychological Wellbeing

By mthomas

Each year in July our year 3 trainees present their Doctoral research. This is always an interesting day (and vinous evening) which serves an important purpose; celebratory closure. They do not have their ‘official’ graduation until November so it is a symbolic ending of their demanding training.   Being a Psychologist can draw you into a deficit focus and so, as an antidote, we always try to reinforce their achievements to encourage resilience and wellbeing.

This year the presentations were outstanding. Many involved research with groups that are often termed ‘hard to reach’. I was moved to make an uncharacteristic, ‘tired and emotional’ speech about the potential for us to launch our own journal rather than negotiate the lengthy archaic processes usually  involved. I also believe in ‘giving psychology away’ and the internet makes this easy through open access publication. On the web ‘content is king’ and we have a wealth of incredibly good content. The aim of what we do is impact and being able to quickly and efficiently share high quality research can maximise this. So one of my main aims for 2014 is to launch a new open access, high impact journal.

The trainees are incredibly generous with their comments and presents. This year I got a wonderful engraved glass (To Miles ‘In Wine Truth’), a bottle of Flick riesling and the quirky Metro wine map pictured. It really is the thought that counts.

My team also ensure we celebrate our successes! My colleague and friend Mark Turner is leaving to focus on his company RealTraining and helping out the Nurture Group Network. He is an inspirational Psychologist and we will miss him. The planned send off at Cafe Anglais later this week should give us the chance to reflect on his contribution and to enhance our wellbeing…



Wine Descriptions Too Flowery…

By mthomas

‘New research’ by Laithwaites found that a 1,000 “reasonably well-informed about wine” participants said that many descriptions in 43 tasting notes from leading wine brands and critics were not that helpful.  The worst included “firm skeleton” with 37% of respondents finding it unhelpful and “nervy” 31%. Other less-than-helpful terms included: “wet stone” (27%); “tongue spanking” (21%), “haunting” (21%), “spring hedgerows” (19%) and “brooding” (18%) as well as “vegetal”, “leathery”, “chunky” and “minerality”. The latter term is especially contentious not only in terms of the taste it describes but also because of the debates about transmission of minerals from earth to grape to wine. I find it quite useful but acknowledge that it is a slightly nebulous and overused descriptor.

Huw Johnson has suggested Anne Noble’s aroma wheel has introduced a formulaic element to tasting. It is essentially a ‘taxonomy of flavours in wine’ so this is the point of it. It is a useful tool in wine education, it stimulates discussion and exploration. The issue is that it is not that widely used and even less understood. It has to be combined with an understanding of individuality and taste profiles to really add value for consumers. I would also argue that it should expand to include many more descriptors such as the ‘exotic fruits’ and mushroom tastes being used by some  critics so that notes are meaningful for a South East Asian audience.

Interestingly, in the Laithwaite’s study “Fresh” was regarded as the most useful word, along with “zesty”. Both possibly relate to people who like acidity. They find these words signpost wines that suit them and both are handy euphemisms where ‘acid’ might have unwanted connotations. I think “peachy” comes out well because it is a popular and well known fruit associated with summer but it also has other meanings which are positive e.g. ‘good’ and ‘sexy’.  Whereas ‘vegetal’ which I sometimes find a positive quality in reds has less positive connotations and might suffer because of this rather than any descriptive utility.  My guess is that this was a major confounding variable in this study. People simply like some words more than others.

Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, who consults for Laithwaite’s, points out that the subjective nature of taste makes the results ‘unsurprising’ but then goes on to suggest; “We have probably been guilty ourselves of using overblown language in the past but this is a wake-up call to the whole wine industry to make a change.” But, surely the answer is not to ‘dumb down’ but to help people understand their own tastes and the taste and language profiles of critics.

Andrew Jefford in Decanter has argued that while “a well written tasting note has practical worth”, even established writers are capable of turning out, “inadequate, boring, incoherent or risible notes”. Jefford is probably one of the most ‘flowery’ of critics. He uses a highly technical language and is prone to metaphor. Personally I am all for this approach. I can often work out what the wine he is describing would taste like to me because I have read lots of his notes and tasted lots of the same wines. I have got benchmarks and this is what we should be encouraging people to develop.

The ‘flowery’ approach can be amusing, creative and really useful but is not an approach that sits well on the back of a bottle. Given what we know about decision-making when buying, wine retailers will increasingly use those descriptors which stimulate purchases rather than those which really inform the diversity of ways in which the wine in the bottle might be experienced by different individuals. This is a shame.