Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

You're Not as Smart as You Could Be

by David G. Wittels


Part 1  -  Part 2

  Few people get as much fun out of their work as experimental psychologists do, which is one reason why Dr. Samuel Renshaw -- a brilliant pioneer in this unsung field -- looks a decade less than his fifty-five years and darts between classrooms and laboratories at a pace which could kill younger men. In addition to the fascination of exploring the mysteries of what makes people tick, there is the lure of the unexpected. There is no telling where an experiment may lead.

Taste text   One day eighteen years ago Renshaw got to wondering exactly where the distinction lay, in human sensation, between hot and cold. He began by experimenting with boiled water -- and wound up as an authority on the sense of taste. Today a large whiskey company pays him a retainer to advise it on how to control the taste of its products, and underwrites the expenses of a laboratory at Ohio State University where some of the most important basic research ever done on the phenomenon of taste is going on.

  One of the things Renshaw has demonstrated there is that, just as with eyesight and memory, the sense of taste can be sharpened tremendously. For instance, if a man finds he needs three teaspoonfuls of sugar to sweeten coffee to his taste, he can train himself to get the same effect from one teaspoonful or less. This does not involve self-denial or self-hypnotism, but the development of a keener sense of taste.

  Since Renshaw's main work has been on vision, with detours into how memory works, this delving into taste and whisky may seem as if he flitted very far afield. But it is neither erratic nor paradoxical. Most modern psychologists believe in what some them call "unity of the senses." They think that seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and the so-called sense of touch are merely different aspects of the same thing.

  This abstruse concept has not been proved entirely beyond dispute, but it has been established that all the senses are so interdependent that real research on one demands learning a great deal about the others. "It is practically impossible," says Renshaw, "to disassociate vision, hearing, kinesthesis, smell, taste and the organics." It is literally true that to some extent we hear with our eyes, see through our memories, taste with our noses and smell with our tongues.

  For instance, we hear partly with our eyes whenever we watch a speaker's lips and gestures. This can be tested by closing the eyes while listening to someone who mumbles or otherwise does not articulate quite clearly. You will find yourself tempted to say, "Speak louder!" whereas with your eyes open you could hear him quite well.

  One example of seeing through memory occurs every time someone says that an object "looks heavy." Of course, nothing ever really "looks" heavy. The eyes have no apparatus for judging weight. To them, a balloon and an iron ball are the same. It is memory, recalling how our muscles felt -- kinesthetic sense -- when we hefted various objects, which enables us to "see" that an object is probably heavy.

  The greatest overlapping is between the sense of smell and the sense of taste. These two faculties are continually engaged in a sort of Alphonse-and-Gaston act, with each allowing the other to get credit for its work or for work done jointly. Many flavors for which we credit the sense of taste are reallly odors which are savored by the sense of smell. If the sense of smell is blocked off, an apple and an onion taste much the same. A banana is practically tasteless, and a luscious mince pie tastes like mush. The two senses are so intertwined that, so far, it has not been possible to separate them entirely even in laboratory work. Some psychologists even refer to smell as "taste at a distance."

  But Renshaw wasn't thinking of this when, one day in 1930, he began to play around with hot water. He was primarily interested in how, through our skins, we get sensations such as pressure, pain, heat and cold. To do such experiments on a true scientific basis, he needed some definitions. "Hot" and "cold" are relative terms. But at what point in human sensation did cold change to hot?

  He began by using himself as a guinea pig. He heated water and, at every degree, put a couple of drops on the back of his hand. But the skin there proved too erratic in its reactions for find measurements. So he decided to try the drops on his cupped tongue. He found a neutral zone of from six to eight degrees centigrade where his tongue gave him no report on temperature. Actually, there were two such "neutral zones," beginning at around twenty-one degrees and at about forty-two degrees, depending upon whether he was working from hot to cold or vice verse. He called those points "thresholds."

  Then he began to wonder if there weren't thresholds in taste, too. He put salt, grain by grain, into distilled water and tried the solutions on his tongue. Then he did the same with sugar. He found the thresholds he expected, but he also found that salt doesn't always taste salty and that sugar doesn't always taste sweet. Some times, in very weak and very strong solutions, and at very high and very low temperatures, salt tasted sweet and sugar tasted bitter, salty or even sour.

  At this point he began using his students as guinea pigs on which to check and extend his findings. Repeated experiments on scores of students verified that those phenomena were not merely personal peculiarities of his taste. But in comparing the experiments, he discovered another fact -- that the human tongue is an awful liar. Not only did the reactions of different tongues differ but the same tongues gave contradictory reports from day to day, and even from minute to minute.

  That looked like a fertile field for exploration. Very little psychological work had been done on taste, and that phase of it was virtually untouched. Day after day, month after month, he made his students taste the same things over and over again, until they grew weary and bored. Some of them even began to suspect that he was trying to make fools of them.

  One day one of his postgraduate students, working as an assistant in the course, came to him with a request. "Doctor Renshaw," he said, "I'm running a test on the various flavors detectable in whisky. The youngsters around here haven't tasted enough brands to give sophisticated reports. Would you mind being my subject for this experiment?"

  The assistant had prepared five samples of bourbon whisky, cut to forty-five proof with distilled water, so that it would not blast the taste buds. He put a few drops of each on Renshaw's tongue. Renshaw got two minutes' rest between samples, and in that time dictated reports on each. The reports were kept as examples:

  No. 1. Apple component followed by smooth, slight sweet. Mild alcohol passes into fairly weak bitter. Becomes smooth and slightly astringent. Aftertaste rough, slightly salty.

  No. 2. More grainy than No.1 Better flavor. Smooth, sweet. Slight bitter comes up, passes quickly. Practically no pucker or roughness. Aftertaste smooth and sweet.

  No. 3. Bland, slightly alcoholic. Bitter comes in weakly, builds up to intense bitter. Absence of graininess and fruity flavor. Predominantly bitter. Not much aftertaste.

  No. 4. Smooth, sweet, slightly astringent. Very distinct bitter comes in and persists, but eventually disappears, leaving a slight smoothness with a touch of sour. Poor quality. No aftertaste.

  No. 5. Smooth, sweet, faint flash of bitter comes in and disappears, followed by slight saline. A little bit of "bite." Aftertaste smooth, slightly sweetish; pleasant, very slight fruity or grainy component. Far better than previous samples.

  As the reader has probably guess, all five samples were identical. The same test tube and pipette were used and the temperature was held constant throughout. The test was merely a plot by his assistants to get even with Renshaw for making fools of them.

  But Renshaw laughed louder than anyone else, and not merely to save face. The test proved exactly what he was trying to hammer home. The point was that the moment he took one taste he no longer was the same person. The first taste set certain reflexes to work so that by the time he took the second sample his taste buds were no longer in the same condition. The second taste caused further changes, and so on down the line.

  This experiment, plus the previous evidence of many similar ones, set Renshaw to wondering about professional tasters. Such experts, who in the whisky business are aptly nicknamed "Tongues," play a highly important role in several industries. They are standard equipment in the coffee, tea, wine, beer and whisky trades, and sometimes are used in ice cream, chocolate and cheese factories and in big bakeries. They do not need to pass formal examinations to qualify as experts, but in some cases their judgment literally becomes the law.

  Such is the case with tea. Under the Tea Inspection Act of March 2, 1897, the Secretary of Agriculture annually appoints a United States Board of Tea Experts. This consists of seven men who have spent many years in the tea business and have acquired the reputation for having extraordinarily sensitive palates. They meet for a week every February in New York and test samples of tea by feeling them, smelling them and, finally, tasting them. Their judgments set the tea standards for that year, and no shipment of tea which fails to meet those standards is permitted to enter the country.

  For the taste test the experts sit around a circular revolving table lined with cups. The tea is brewed right in the cups by pouring boiling water on samples weighing the equivalent of a United States dime. The tasting is a gusty, noisy process. The experts suck a large spoonful of each brew rapidly and loudly into their mouths. The shlupping is done so that the tea will slap against the palate and the back of the tongue, where the experts believe the taste sensitivity to be greatest. The tea remains in their mouths for only a second before, with practiced accuracy, they eject it into large brass cuspidors. As a final step, they smack their lips rapidly and heartily, to get the full effect of the aftertaste. In one week they may taste more than 1000 samples.

  For coffee, the New York Coffee Exchange selects a jury of twelve drawn from a panel of some fifty experienced men. They do not have the official status of the tea tasters, but in actual practice their verdict is almost as important. Their judgment, according to one expert, is based "25 per cent on aroma, 10 per cent on appearance -- that is, whether it is clear or muddy in the cup -- and 65 per cent on taste."

  These experts, too, sit around a revolving table bearing cups. Boiling water is poured on samples weighing the equivalent of a United States nickel each. The experts sniff the brew, then stir it and sniff again, and then, when it is cool enough, taste it. At first they act a bit more refined than their brethren in tea. Instead of shlupping noisily, they sip slowly and thoughtfully. But finally they, too, let fly at brass spittoons. In both coffee and tea, large firms also maintain their own experts to pass on their special blends.

 Winetasters sniff, sip and sometimes even rub a few drops between their fingers. Like tea and coffee tasters, they make their reports in special vocabularies which are incomprehensible to laymen. Sometimes they wax downright poetic. One expert once explained that "not only must the flavor be clean and not acid or musty, alive and not flat, deep and not just superficial, but in a good wine it must be suave and supple as the vibrations of a violin string." Despite this ecstatic approach, winetasters do not swallow the samples, and between sips they refresh their palates by chewing chunks of bread or cheese.

  In this country the professional beer tasters are the master brewers and their assistants in each brewery. But in England the standards are set by publicly elected men known as "aleconners." The title goes back to the time of William the Conqueror, and the word "conner" is from the Middle English "cun," meaning to prove or examine. At least until recently, the City of London regularly elected four aleconners at the same time its voters chose the sheriffs and the chamberlain.

  There was a time when these conners literally used the seat of their pants to help them arrive at their verdicts. They wore leather breeches in those days and, according to an old account, "the conner would spill a little beer on a bench, and if his breeches stuck to the wood he would adjudge the liquor to be of the required strength."

  Renshaw had a hunch that modern methods were not much better. He did not suspect the professional tasters of being fakers in any sense, but he doubted that the human tongue was much more accurate than the seat of the pants. He got no chance to test this theory, however, until representatives of a large whisky company approached him a few years ago.

  They had a problem common to all whisky companies. Except in the very worst grades, most whiskies of the same types contain about the same amount of alcohol and have almost exactly the same effect on the human system. Therefore the prime competitive selling point is flavor. Truly sophisticated palates are rare, but most people can detect differences in various brands and become attached to particular flavors. When a whisky company hits upon a flavor which proves popular, it can be worth millions of dollars to that company to maintain that flavor.

  But that's a tough trick to do.  No matter how rigidly the distilling and aging processes are controlled, no two runs of liquor taste exactly alike. Two batches of grain, even if from adjacent fields and sometimes even if from two parts of the same field, may result in widely different flavors. That is the main reason why almost all whiskies are blended. That is also why whisky companies pay up to $15,000 a year to the men known as Tongues. By mixing various batches of liquor, then comparing the results with previous stock, these Tongues try to keep the flavor constant.

  Every now and then, however, something seemed to go wrong. There would be floods of kickbacks -- bottles and cases of liquor returned by customers with the loud complaint that "this taste awful; nothing like the last batch." Sometimes it was the customers' fault; people will complain that the flavor of their favorite whisky, coffee, cigarette, cheese or ice cream has been altered when actually it was their own tastes that had changed. But in enough cases to worry them considerably, the whisky companies discovered that the fault lay in the product. What had gone wrong was a baffling mystery.

  The company which approached Renshaw did not know whether he knew anything about whisky, but it had heard of his work on taste. Could he solve this mystery? The problem fascinated him, and he suspected that he already knew the answer, but he did not want to leave teaching and his wide-ranging psychological research. He recommended that the firm hire E.H. Schofield, one of his most brilliant graduate students.

  One of Schofield's first moves was to try much the same sort of trick another assistant had pulled on Renshaw. The company had three Tongues who were tops in their field. Schofield gave them identical samples and asked them to report the differences they found. Being specialists, they did not go nearly as far astray as Renshaw did, but still they found differences. Without enlightening them, Schofield gave them further tastes of the same samples the next day. This time they reported new differences.

  The test proved what Renshaw had suspected -- that the bad batches were due to the fact that even their highly sensitive tongues were liars. Again, no one got mad at this trick, not even the experts. They were valued executives whose jobs did not depend solely upon their palates, and when they saw that the fault lay in themselves, they eagerly co-operated in finding a cure.

  Renshaw and Schofield worked out a threefold plan. By scientific training, they taught the three Tongues and a number of other people in the company how to develop even sharper taste discrimination. They invented a vocabulary of taste terms which permitted better-defined reporting. But their main step was to do what psychologists call "calibrating the reporters."

  First they tested the three experts to determine their "thresholds" and their "range of error." Then they did the same thing with several dozen other employees, who were enlisted as part-time tasters. This gave Renshaw and Schofield a set of charts showing how often each of forty or fifty tasters was wrong in a large number of tries, and to what extent each one went off the beam.

  Using these charts, they worked out complicated mathematical formulas to be used on the future reports of these tasters, individually and as a group. Given twenty samples of a man's judgment on a certain subject, the psychologists can, with such formulas, closely calculate the odds of his being right in further judgments in the same field. Applied to nearly fifty tested people, such formulas can virtually cancel the factor of human fallibility. The result was that the company was able to confine the variations in the flavor of its brand to a range within which the average drinker cannot detect any difference.

  The company was so impressed that in addition to making Schofield an important executive and paying Renshaw a handsome retainer to act as long-range consultant, it also underwrote most of the cost of a taste laboratory at Ohio State. The work is by no means confined to whisky. Most of it is basic research on the psychological aspects of taste and smell, the two senses so far most neglected by scientists. To this day, scientists do not agree on how many taste buds there are in the human mouth, nor on exactly how they operate. They are even less certain about how the sense of smell works.

  The taste lab is in a smallish room on the top floor of a brick building on the campus. This writer approached it eagerly toward the end of a weary day, having heard that Renshaw kept quite a stock of fine whisky there, and having learned at firsthand that in his own home Renshaw poured with a liberal hand for his guests. But that afternoon he found no oasis. Renshaw keeps the laboratory whisky under lock and key. The most wistful hints failed to register. He brings it out only for experimental purposes, and he has a very narrow view as to what constitutes an experiment. In five visits to the laboratory, all this writer got was a few drops of distilled water.

   Renshaw is very proud of his distilled water. After buying the purest available, he redistills it several times to get as near to a tasteless substance as possible. James B. Trump, one of his graduate students, graciously offered to let me taste it. "See," he said triumphantly, "no taste at all." Then, after fumbling with some bottles, he poured a few drops of a fluid on my tongue and said, "Now tell me what you taste." Savoring carefully, I reported a "very very faint sweet taste." Renshaw and Trump grinned. I had fallen for one of the oldest psychological tricks. The second fluid was the same tasteless stuff as the first, but, expecting a taste, I got one.

  At first quick glance, the lab could be either a drab kitchen, a photographic darkroom with the lights on, or the back room of a pharmacy. There is a beat-up old dentist's chair in which the human guinea pigs sit while various flavors are squirted onto their cupped tongues. It all seems very dull, but in this room discoveries are being made which in a few years probably will have tremendous effect upon the the flavor of hundreds of food products.

  Some of the things Renshaw and his assistants can do are like a magician's show. For instance, using only three chemicals -- ethyl acetate, butyl acetate and isopropyl -- Renshaw can imitate almost any flavor. He does it by mixing those chemicals, by varying the concentrations and by changing the temperatures of the solutions.

  Some of the facts established in that room belong under the heading of household hints. For instance, tomato juice tastes best at about room temperature. When chilled, it loses some of its subtler flavors, and if ice-cold, most of the flavor disappears. Pineapple juice and orange juice, however, taste better when somewhat chilled -- about the amount of chilling one ice cube would give. When heated, pineapple juice tastes horribly nasty; when overiced it is relatively insipid.

  Whisky tastes best at room temperature or slightly chilled. Excessive chilling brings out unpleasant flavor components. If the whisky is warm, it is apt to taste quite a bit like varnish, paint remover or shoe polish, depending upon the brand.

  Babies are likely to refuse their bottles if the milk is as little as five degrees too hot or too cold. Mothers therefore would be wise to use thermometers instead of the age-old method of pouring a few drops on their wrists. Babies often reject purees, too, not because they don't like the flavor but because the temperature is a few degrees off from the point they prefer.

  Every experiment he does further convinces Renshaw that most people are only about 20 per cent alive, or, as he puts it, have achieved only "on the order of twenty percentile utilization of the sense modalities." Actually, he believes that in some respects the percentage is even less. A set of experiments some years ago indicated that the so-called sense of touch could be sharpened 700 per cent by a little practice.

  Renshaw was working on the problem of how we feel things through our skins. Many physiologists and anatomistss explain it by saying we have specialized nerve endings which give the brain direct reports on surface sensations. But others doubt that this is the whole answer. As a psychologist, Renshaw believes that it is at best only a small fraction of the answer.

  In these experiments Renshaw blindfolded his subjects and gently poked them at two points on their forearms simultaneously. He wanted to find out how far apart the two pressure points had to be before the subjects could detect two separate pokes. He found that on the average person the pokes had to be at least fourteen millimeters apart. At lesser distances the subjects couldn't tell the difference between one poke and two. But after Renshaw made them practice awhile, they were able to detect two gentle pokes only two millimeters apart. This is one example of why Renshaw is convinced that most people could learn to sharpen all their sense to a degree which would enable them to do things now considered extraordinary. In vision and memory, he seems to have quite well proved his theory. In developing procedures for improving the sense of taste, he considers himself still in the elementary stages. But he has trained scores of students to detect and enjoy flavors that they did not even suspect existed. Given a sip of lemonade, untrained students report it tastes like "...well, like lemonade." After training, they can identify at least a dozen flavors, several odors and various textures in lemonade. They get a tremendous lot more pleasure out of savoring food and drinks. And they need far less salt, pepper, sugar or any other extraneous flavoring.

  The woman who dumps three teaspoonfuls of sugar in her coffee, the man who uses the pepper shaker with a heavy hand, and those who say that all cigarettes taste alike are, according to Renshaw, convicting themselves of being morons in the sense of taste. The palate can be trained to get a great deal of flavor out of an amazingly small amount. This is because all flavors -- in fact, all things out of which we get sensation -- start reactions which, if allowed to run their course unhampered, will continue to build up sensation for some time. A little bit of sugar will start the sensation of sweetness. Piling on more sugar can't do much more, and may even blunt the reaction. Proceeding on the theory exemplified above, Renshaw has even taught himself to get the same kick out of one highball that he used to get out of four. "The trouble," he says, "is that we don't allow the effect of that first drink to run its course. If we get out of the way, the reaction to that drink may last an hour or more. Pouring one drink atop another may make you very drunk, if that's what you want, but insofar as pleasantly, mildly relaxing effects are concerned, it is a waste of good liquor."

  These tricks cannot, however, be learned in one easy lesson. There are, unfortunately, no magic pills for any sort of self-improvement, whether in whisky drinking or brain power. "You can't learn such things merely by reading a book or a magazine article," Renshaw says; and if that sounds too obvious to require statement, he can cite letters from otherwise apparently intelligent people who have heard of some of his work, begging him to give them the secret in a word or two.

  Even diligent practice may not show immediate effects. Students practicing on taste may go six weeks before there is any sharply noticeable change in their performance, but when it comes the improvement is dramatic. That phenomenon of sudden catching on is typical of all learning, from the quantum theory to how to swing a golf club properly. Psychologists explain it by the "law of unconscious adoption of method." They say that in the early stages of learning something new, when we seem to be getting practically nowhere, we subconsciously are working out a key to the problem. When we find that key we are able to let loose and use what we subconsciously learned during the period when we seemed hopelessly stuck. William James, in some respects the father of modern psychology, meant somewhat the same sort of thing when he made the paradoxical remark that we learn to ice-skate in the summer and to swim in the winter.

  Another example lies in a phenomenon which occurs often to everyone. A problem in studies or in everyday living may seem so complicated that it is impossible to solve. The harder it is tackled, the worse the apparent confusion. But the next morning the whole thing may seem ridiculously simple. That is not merely because the mind is then rested and fresh. All the ingredients of the solution had really been worked out the day before, but not recognized as such and not put together properly. During the night, the subconscious recognized the pattern required to make the ingredients make sense.

  Another thing modern psychologists have proved is that we learn best when forced to work things out for ourselves. Renshaw uses a form of this in his classroom teaching. His lectures are apt to consist more of hints and provocative but unfinished statements than of dogmatic explanation. However, his classes nowadays are made up largely of veterans, who have something of a hard-boiled, show-me attitude. Suspecting that he is feeding them ivory-tower malarkey because he doesn't give concrete, practical answers, they fire cynical questions. That sometimes goads Renshaw into letting loose with a flood of demonstrated facts, couched in scientific jargon, which leaves them looking as dazed as shell-shocked men.

  Renshaw says that nothing, not even his study of Dr. Salo Finkelstein, the greatest scientifically proved memory wizard ever known, has given him any solid indication of the limits to which the human mind and senses can be trained. Renshaw believes that each of us can do anything, within reason, that he wants to do. He believes, for instance, that no otherwise normally intelligent person is inherently "dumb in arithmetic" or "lacking in card sense"; the only thing lacking, he says, is real desire to do arithmetic or play cards well. He thinks it is the same with hearing -- except, of course, when there is disease or actual malformation -- with taste, smell, vision and the so-called sense of touch. He even argues that the fabulous eyesight of the Australian aborigine trackers, as well as that attributed to American frontiersmen and Indians, is explained simply by the fact that their desire for keen vision -- necessary for survival in their environment -- was so compelling that they developed it. He claims that any normal modern man, even if he wears glasses because he thinks he is nearsighted, could learn to equal those legendary visual feats. In fact, Renshaw believes that all of us are potential geniuses -- compared to current standards -- who merely have not learned how to use the powers with which we were born.

Mystery image

(Thanks to Mike Wittels, to Shorey Chapman and to Gus Linton.  "You're Not as Smart as You Could Be" originally ran in the Saturday Evening Post on April 17, April 24, and May 1, 1948.)

Part 1  -  Part 2  -  Part 3

Renshaw and the Tachistoscope (and Heinlein too)

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