Saturday, January 2, 2021

Using Whisky To Time Travel Will Physically Rewire Your Brain's Structure: A How-To Guide

Mastering Whiskey to Reshape your Brain's Right Insula and Entorhinal Cortex

What does it take to become accomplished at anything and why does it matter?  Expertise isn't only about the possession of skill or knowledge.  It turns out that it affects the way you experience sensation and process thought and that changes everything.  This sounds like hyperbole, but I'm being completely serious.  I mean it literally and I have the science to back it up (well... maybe).  And, in a very Coopered Tot kind of way, I'm not going to stop there.  I'm going to tell you how to develop whisky expertise yourself and have it expand your consciousness in a way that will literally re-wire your brain.  And doing so will be pleasurable and easy and won't require a lick of reading (not counting the untold thousands of words here!)  This is some high-grade wisdom, and like any kind of wisdom, it requires a bit of work to understand and implement fully, so I'm going to take you on a journey.   First I'm going to give you a poetic example of what I'm talking about before we get to the empirical stuff.  Why?  Ask deceased neuro-science-popularizing genius Douglas Hofstadter who explains how dendritic mappings in the brain give rise to consciousness and self-awareness in his classic book "Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid" but first makes you do a lot of philosophy of logic exercises with paper and pen and then read a lot of poetic stuff about Zen and parables and Greek philosophers and mathematics and music and art first.  He wasn't just being a jerk.  He wants the conclusion to resonate with a larger part of your mind than just the language centers where you'll process his verbal arguments.  He wants you to put down a layer of visceral experience so that later when the conclusions hit, they will vibrate the whole complex of associated experiences like a bell and the experience will be powerful and immersive.  And, patient readers, that's the whole point of the exercise here too.

I'm going to relate a portion of an essay here that I titled "Whisky is a Time Traveler".  I wrote it back in 2012 for Islay Wild & Magic impresario Rachel MacNeill's blog "Whisky for Girls" (it's now ).  It's an essay about how *I* drink whisky - but it's also an essay about a certain kind of mindfulness.  It illustrates a point that I'll raise later, but I'm hoping it will be thought-provoking along the way in its own right:

Whisky Is A Time Traveler

Everyone drinks whisky in their own personal way.  When I drink whisky I try to slow down and focus very clearly and intensely on what is going on in the glass - as the dram interacts with time and air and water and my shifting and evolving human palate.  Part of that appreciation includes knowing the larger context which radiates in like a ring from particulars such as what distillery made it, the nature of the water, what proof, which grains were used, how they were malted and handled, the differnt tree woods used in barrel aging and what other beverages were previously aged in those barrels and so on.  Because I like to drink a lot of antique spirits I think about the era they were made, the people involved, the aesthetics and intentions of the crafters.  But the flavors also lead me to think about the land, sea, the odors of the air in the places where grain was grown, distillation happened and barrels matured.  Whisky is a distillate of mash, but it is also a distillate of the physical environment of where it was made and of where its components came from: of the fields of grain, the water, wood, fuels, breezes and the weather.  It is also a distillate of the hands and minds that made it.  The spirit, culture and decisions and actions of the people who designed and executed the recipe you end up tasting.  The distillate is a concentrated essence of these physical and also human elements which are preserved in the glass bottle as a fly is in a piece of amber.

Valentine Distilling Co. - Ferndale, MI

We inhabit a particular time and place.  The exact meaning of both of these terms are controversial topics in the fields of theoretical physics and philosophy - but everyone has a clear and solid feeling of what it is.  We also have knowledge of other times and other places.  We read history, see accounts, visit museums and encounter artifacts and depictions.  While the power of the abstract is vast, we relate most to the specific.  Scientists have plumbed the reaches of the cosmos with theoretical models describe the physical nature of the universe back to within instants of the big bang.  But our most intimate knowledge of distant times and places comes from direct physical evidence.  These bits and pieces of other times and places take many forms: representations such as documents, records, photographs or artistic representations; or actual things holding the physical essence of time and place; sometimes both.

"Blueberry" deposits on the surface of Mars - NASA

Things like this have been a source of fascination, desire, and obsession for me for as long as I can remember:  they are time travelers with the power to take you back to their origins.  Coins, documents, ancient artifacts, fossils, mineral specimens meteorites all provide direct experience of distant times and/or places.  These things are time travelers because they were made in a particular time and place and they embody and convey that to us.  Some connect directly and forcefully to the past.  For example I have an ancient Minoan pot shard with a fingerprint on it.  It's a tangible physical connection to a moment in time when a potter gripped the clay over 3,000 years ago.  The presence of the fingerprint brings home in an immediately obvious and visceral way that a human being touched this actual bit of clay when it was wet on a particular day, feeling a particular mood in a vanished time, a vanished culture, a vanished world.  

Once you feel how an object can allow you to make a physical connection with distant times and places you’ll find these connection points everywhere.  My old lobby was lined with marble with clam shells in it.  I was aware that these were once living clams in a living sea over a quarter of a billion years ago.  I have a quartz crystal from New York's Herkimer County mines with an inclusion that is water.  You can tell it is water because inside the water is a tiny bubble.  When you move the crystal the right way the bubble moves.  The rocks there are dated to the Cambrian - over 500 million years old.  I'm entranced that the little air bubble has been there, fighting the water and exchanging molecules back and forth with it for half a billion years.  Inside chondritic meteorites you can see the grains of rock and metal that formed from the collapsing dust cloud that formed the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.  These objects speak to me and I feel the distances of time with an almost physical force.  At times this has been almost like vertigo.  When the NASA rover Opportunity found hematite "blueberries" lying on a rock on Mars I was 
viscerally aware that they had crystallized out of the evaporating Martian ocean over 3 billion years ago and had just laid there - undisturbed - for unimaginable eons.  Somehow that vast ocean of time that those little pebbles had just sat there on that rock seemed overwhelming, almost horrifying - out of scale with anything living or even comprehensible. 

I work in a museum that has an astounding collection of manuscripts and books.  One of the perks of my job is the occasional opportunity to closely encounter amazing objects such as medieval illuminated manuscripts.  Over time, as I have learned more about the materials and methods of medieval illuminators, and of their culture, world view, and intensely complicated system of visual metaphor and iconography I experienced a transformation in the way I have come to see these manuscripts.  At first, I saw a depiction, like a cartoon.  Now I experience being in the same place (i.e. in front of the page) as an illuminator centuries ago.  I can see his brush lines, pounce marks, and drafting lines.  I can sense his creative struggle and more deeply appreciate his genius and his deeper message.  In the moment of reverie of such observations, I’m, briefly, no longer in the room, or even my time.  I’m at the cloister, in an illusory way, centuries ago, as his hand is creating the manuscript.

Morgan Library - Las Huelgas Apocalypse (detail)


Well, whisky is a time-traveling physical talisman too.  I am moved when I taste a meadow and summer's day from a far off time when drinking certain old whiskies.  Here is a tasting note from a dram of Dallas Dhu 12, purchased in 1998 and sipped in 2012:

"Nose: Heather, flax, honeyed sherry, vanilla oak notes. There's a distant herbal vegetal note like milkweed sap that is bracing. I would characterize it as wildflowers in lush grass near some oak woods on a dry hot summer's day. Given the context (that the distillery closed in 1983 and that I bought the bottle in 1998 on the eve of my wedding) this is an echo of summer's day from a time far off, when I was young... when things were different"

That feeling I’m describing is an awareness that this whisky was distilled when I was a senior in High School, a year before I moved to New York City and met the girl who would one day become my wife.  Before jobs, children, or even whisky, entered my life.  The Sun was shining on that barley and that meadow was there.  Tasting that dram literally takes me there.  It’s not mysterious in any way.  Yet it is absolutely magic: real perceptual time travel that anyone can experience with a simple shift in mental perspective.

To time travel with a dram is about awareness.  The cues to time and space in whisky are subtle, underneath the more obvious factors such as spirit, sweet and wood.  Our minds have evolved to constantly pick out the most salient feature in any circumstance and skip the rest.  In normal situations this is a benefit, otherwise we would be overwhelmed by the flood of sensations that surrounds us most of the time.  In order to really experience a dram fully it is necessary to eliminate distractions and let the dram fill up your perceptions.

A wonderful blog post on this topic is Jason Debley's Slow-Whisky movement:

It's an essay on the zen meditative approach to drinking a dram.  The ultimate goal is, for me, to understand the whisky on its own terms as it evolves in the glass through interaction with air, time, (and water - if you go there - and I often do) and progresses across your palate. And then to understand how this in-the-glass evolution and the on-your-palate progression fits into the larger context of your perception, desire, tastes, and cognition.  This should lead you to a deeper sense of your dram’s significance in a larger context.

However, Jason’s excellent article leaves out one important technique that I find vital for detecting the minute details necessary to fully plumbing the depths of a dram: that is detailed observation for representation, i.e. writing out your tasting notes.  Writing out your tasting notes is a very useful enterprise.  I got the idea from sketching what you see in the telescope's eyepiece in amateur astronomy.  In astronomy, you are supposed to sketch, not just to keep a record of what you have seen - but also as a way to induce you really LOOK.  When you observe merely to satisfy your conscious mind you gloss over details.  The evolved ability to identify the salient detail and not bothering to perceive the rest is very active in the visual sense.  The act of recording the observation causes you to observe more deeply - to actually pay attention to the subtle details that you may not have bothered to really notice visually, but suddenly need in order to flesh out your depiction on the paper.  All this goes double for tasting whisky.  Like astronomy, whisky tasting is best done in solitude, at night, in the quiet still and dark.  And like the astronomy eyepiece, the whisky glass is circular porthole into the depths of time and space and the deepest mysteries of the universe.  The act of sketching actually forces you to truly OBSERVE.  Thus take notes when you critically taste.  Tasting (a fusion of the sense of nose and tongue) is tied deeply to the limbic system - the most primitive interior “reptile brain” beneath our cerebral cortex.  These areas of the brain are more tied to the subconscious than the conscious.  This can be a drawback for awareness - but also a secret strength.  Certain smells and flavors can powerfully evoke distant memories and visceral sensations, seemly mysteriously, by exploiting these limbic pathways.  Thus it is extremely difficult to put words to flavors and smells - but the act of attempting to do so forces you to focus on the details of what is flying beneath your radar.  This is the power of meditation to increase awareness: they key to observing the most subtle cues connecting what’s in the dram to what’s in your mind and body.  

When you really listen, you’ll find that the whisky is telling you a story.


What in the world am I getting at with that long-winded story?  It's simply this: that my experiences of the flavors are affected by the constellation of associations that I've developed around what those flavors **mean**.  For me, the nexus of that meaning is **history**.  A couple of years ago I had the wonderful experience of drinking with gifted distiller Lisa Roper Wicker.  She had a whole set of associations that were different than mine - but even more useful.  She knew the specific chemical compounds that were associated with the flavors I was getting and understood the production-level reasons for those compounds.  It's entirely reasonable that her experience trying to influence the crafting of spirits - from mashing through distillation and maturation - would give her a lexicon for those flavor components related to the details of whiskey production.  I've had similar experience drinking with other distillers - particularly Chip Tate who is notably articulate about both the flavor and the process to get them.  In thinking about this stuff I went back re-read Jason Debly's "Slow Whiskey" blog post and noticed that I had written the following in the comments below:

"Writing out your tasting notes is a very useful enterprise. I got the idea from sketching what you see in the telescope's eyepiece "n amateur astronomy. You are supposed to sketch, not just to keep a record of what you have seen - but also as a way to induce you really LOOK. When you observe merely to satisfy your conscious mind you gloss over details. Our minds have evolved to constantly pick out the most salient feature and skip the rest. The act of recording the observation causes you to observe more deeply - to actually pay attention to the details that you suddenly need in order to flesh out your depiction."

Like astronomy, whisky tasting is best done in solitude, at night, in the quiet still and dark. And like the astronomy eyepiece, the whisky glass is circular porthole into the depths of time and space and the deepest mysteries of the universe. The act of sketching actually forces you to truly OBSERVE. Thus take notes when you critically taste."

He replied:  

"Joshua, I hear where you are coming from, but for me, the act of writing or note taking would distract from the experience. I would quickly become worried that my notes are not 'correct' or missing something."

"But, for you this is not the case. And that, my friend is totally okay. It's all up to the individual."

Jason Debly's response is quintessentially Zen.  He wants you to be lost in a sea of pure experience.  In Zen, words for things get in the way by putting a layer of abstraction between you and the experience itself.  Debly wants you to fully self-immerse in the experience without the screen of abstractions that language demands - that process of arbitrarily putting experiences into the pigeon holes of words.  But my position is based on the observation that people's first memories always seem to date back to the time they begin speaking in complete sentences.  I believe that language provides the structural cognitive framework for memory and that's a part of rewiring your brain.

Blogger and author Kurt Maitland (right) tastes with joy.

Rewiring Your Brain By Critically Tasting Your Drams

I received an article in an email from a fascinating and talented artist named Cindy Morefield (click the link to see her extraordinary art). It was written by one Ann-Sophie Barwich, a scientist who studies the neuropsychology of sensations, particularly smell.  She wrote a fascinating article on this topic titled:
"Becoming an expert in anything, whether it’s wine tasting or mathematics, changes the way you perceive the world."

In this article, she's talking about wine tasting - but you can see how everything she says is directly applicable to whisky tasting too:

James opened this for me. Gratitude.

"Lots of people think of wine tasting as a scam. But wine tasting is a true scientific art—it’s just that words sometimes get in the way of it being taken seriously. Gasoline-smelling wines do not contain petrol per se—we hope—but often share compounds with another substance with a recognizable aroma. The brains of sommeliers learn how to link categories of sensory experience (i.e., “this smells like petrol”) to qualitative categories of specific chemical compounds. Aged Riesling, for example, contains TDN (short for 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene), a compound with the aroma of petrol. TDN is a result of carotenoids (organic pigments found in many foods, including grapes) breaking down, a process accelerated by higher temperatures. Many odd wine descriptors, including “rubber hose” and—yes—“cat’s piss,” can be identified as a specific chemical compound by expert noses. In the case of cat’s piss, it’s the compound pyrazine found in Sauvignon Blanc.

Wine has several hundred aroma compounds, which is more molecular information than most of our brains have the ability to compute. Sommeliers have learned how to direct their sensory spotlight to identify specific compounds in a complex mixture. They have trained themselves to be extremely good at discriminating and identifying individual aromas and aroma patterns. The best wine experts can identify a vintage down to its specific vineyard and even year with a virtuosity that can occasionally take less than a minute. 

Acquiring this skillset not only makes sommeliers a knowledgeable (if not sometimes exasperating) dinner-party guest. It actually alters the structure and activity of their brains. 

Comparing the brain of a mathematician with that of a sommelier, we find remarkable similarities. In both cases, the cellular density of white and gray matter in designated areas increases. Whether it’s sniffing Syrah or performing calculus, the acquisition of expertise makes  parts of the brain thicker. In mathematicians, for example, one of the most prominent changes in the density of gray matter is found in the superior frontal gyrus, an area also linked with the coordination of self-awareness and, most intriguing, laughter. In comparison, changes in sommeliers’ brain volume were found in the right insula and entorhinal cortex, areas that are notably involved in memory processing. Such changes in neural density give those areas enhanced cortical connectivity and signaling speed, as the synaptic connections by which neurons communicate become more tightly packed. A consequence of increased neural density is that dedicated specialized areas of the brain better integrate and orchestrate otherwise widespread neural activity. Expertise of any kind results in a more sophisticated communication architecture of the brain. "

In that article, she refers back to a famous and important paper about how London cab drivers have differences in the physical structure of their brains caused by learning the spatial layout of London's crazy streets.  From the abstract:

"Structural MRIs of the brains of humans with extensive navigation experience, licensed London taxi drivers, were analyzed and compared with those of control subjects who did not drive taxis. The posterior hippocampi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects. A more anterior hippocampal region was larger in control subjects than in taxi drivers. Hippocampal volume correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver (positively in the posterior and negatively in the anterior hippocampus). These data are in accordance with the idea that the posterior hippocampus stores a spatial representation of the environment and can expand regionally to accommodate elaboration of this representation in people with a high dependence on navigational skills. It seems that there is a capacity for local plastic change in the structure of the healthy adult human brain in response to environmental demands. ..."

Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers
Eleanor A. Maguire, David G. Gadian, Ingrid S. Johnsrude, Catriona D. Good, John Ashburner, Richard S. J. Frackowiak, and Christopher D. Frith

PNAS April 11, 2000 97 (8) 4398-4403;

Ann-Sophie Barwich's Wiki page explains:  She "is a cognitive scientist, an empirical philosopher, and an historian of science. She is an Assistant Professor with joint positions in the Cognitive Science Program[1] and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science[2] at Indiana University Bloomington. Barwich is best known for her interdisciplinary[3] work on the history, philosophy, and neuroscience of olfaction. Her book, Smellosophy: What the Nose tells the Mind,[4] highlights the importance of thinking about the sense of smell as a model for neuroscience and the senses.[5][6][7][8][9] She is also noted for her analyses on methodological issues in molecular biology[10] and neuroscience."

So she is well-positioned to take the cab driver result and apply it to the subject of whether critical tasting does the same thing to sommelier's brains (but in the areas of sensory perception, rather than spatial memory).  But there is a surprise here: 

"But here’s the paradox. When an expert’s brain grows, they also use less of it. The more proficient you are at wine tasting, the less activity we’ll see in your brain’s fMRI recording, as reported in a scientific study from 2014. If you’re processing more information, though, how are you using your brain less? This observation is less puzzling if you compare your brain to the body of an athlete. You’ll need to put in less overall effort to lift weights if your body is trained to do so routinely. With practice, some brain activities become “automatized” and, according to the neuroscientist Christof Koch, resemble a “zombie agent”—meaning these processes require less and less conscious effort and attention. 

So do sommeliers become merely better at memorizing patterns, like in the legendary study of hippocampi in London cab drivers, or do they also get better at the sensory part of smelling itself? The answer is both. Notably, a sommelier’s skill is not exclusively a method of memory (this is what a Cabernet Sauvignon typically smells like, and that is the aroma profile of a Barolo). Training further enhances their ability to be more receptive to aromas in a mixture: the sensitivity to odors changes with repeated exposure.   

Yet the real surprise is this: The previously mentioned 2014 fMRI study on expert sommeliers suggests that sensory expertise modifies your experience of reality—it affects not just the ability to identify and recall things on a cognitive level, but also consciousness itself. During tasting, the scientists observed activation in the brain stem of experts but not in novices. This finding (which is still being further explored) implies a difference in how sensory information is integrated into the cortical cognitive activity of experts and novices. Engaging with your perception on an analytical level thus makes a difference in the quality of your experience by fine-tuning your brain to its input (and having it reorganize its neural story to match). 

You get more control of the quality and content of your own conscious experience … by thinking while drinking wine.
(emphasis - my own)

Ann-Sophie Barwich (and I'm beginning to think she might actually be a Bar Witch) is telling us that doing the word of developing the perceiving part of our mind will, like a muscle you work in the gym, make it stronger.  But that, like the muscle you've developed in the gym, you'll work it less hard to do the same work in the future. So what?  Remember we're not talking about actual muscles with this metaphor; we are talking about the perceiving part of your brain.  And once you've developed that part of your brain it will be operational with absolutely everything you use that part of your brain for: tasting, perceiving, seeing patterns and finding meaning in them.  It's about awareness and perception.  And that brings us back to Zen.  You will become more fully present and you will make deeper associations the more you grow in this way.

So, how to proceed?  The answer is simple.  Drink mindfully and in a way that engages with your passion.  For Lisa Roper Wicker and Chip Tate that involves knowing the molecular compounds involved in flavors and how the process of making whisky creates or destroys them.  For me, it's finding history in the time, place, culture, and people involved in the liquid.  For Jason Debly it's pure Zen: experience without words.  

Let's take Jason Debly's "Slow Whisky Movement" tenets as our guide for what to do:

Tenets of the Slow-Whisky Movement

No. 1:  A couple of hours after your last, non-spicy meal, seek out a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.  Preferably in the evening when your abode is quiet.  No T.V. or radio.  Blackberry, smartphones, turned off and preferably buried in the backyard.  Get comfortably ensconced in your favorite chair.  Next to you will be a glass with 1 1/2 oz of your favorite comfort scotch or whisky of the moment.  Make sure it is what you want, not some recommendation of a fool whisky blogger or a critic's windy must-buy malt suggestion of the moment.

No. 2:  Close your eyes.  Focus on your breathing.  Listen to it.  When your mind wanders, come back to your breathing.  Just be aware of it.  If a thought comes into your head, that's ok, but again, be conscious of your breathing.  

No. 3:  Reach for your glass of whisky.  Hold the glass and look at the color of the whisky.  Is it dark?  Light?  Reddish?  Really look at it.  Don't worry about the 'proper vocabulary' because there isn't any.  Just you and a glass of whisky.   Bring the rim of the glass to your nose.  Close your eyes and gently sniff twice and move the rim of the glass away.  What do you think of?  Old leather books?  Grandpa's steaming tea in a Thermos?  Cherry pipe tobacco?  The sea?  Eucalyptus oil?  Hospital bandages and pungent ointment?  Bring the glass back for one more sniff.  Again, do some free association?  

No. 4:    Eyes closed, take the tiniest of sips.  How does the spirit behave on the palate?  Sweet?  Sharp?   Spicy?  What else is there?  Cherries?  Oak?  Honey and sea salt?  Kosher pretzel.  Let your mind wander into the past to good thoughts.  Childhood food and baked goods.  Note the range of flavors.  Marvel at them.

No. 5:  Swallow.  What remains?  Smoke?  Iodine?  Coarse salt?  Malty notes?  Spiced honey and oat cakes?  Balsa wood?

No. 6:  Slowly repeat steps 3 through 5 until your 1 1/2 oz dram serving is gone.  Once it is gone there will be no refills.  One key aspect of the 'slow-whisky' movement is the restriction of your enjoyment to one modest serving of whisky.  In this way, you will relish and catalogue in your mind every nuance, fabric, weave of flavors of the spirit.  Remember!  No refills.

Follow these main tenets and drinking any whisky will be a much more immediate and special experience.  You will experience a greater range of flavors, that would be lost with subsequent refills.

Taken from Jason Debly's "Scotch Whisky Reviews" blog post:

Follow your passion and be open to how it informs your perception of the whisky.  Write notes - or don't - but be mindful about it and integrate all your thinking and bring it to bear on the dram in the dram in your glass.  In the end, it's about really being in the moment.  Instead of using a koan - a sound or word like "OM" to take you out of your head and allow you to be meditatively present - really present - in the present, I'm suggesting you use mindfully inhabiting the rich tapestry of flavors and aromas in your glass.  Make whisky your koan.  Like all paths to wisdom, you have to find your particular path yourself - because it is unique to you. But in doing so you'll be changing the actual physical structure of your brain in a way that will change the way your perceive and that will change who you are.