I recently gave up drinking, so when I saw the Observant report last week about the Wageningen research claiming that drinking alcohol-free beer is “just as much fun” as imbibing normal beer, I was intrigued (and quite sceptical). The research in question conducted fMRI scans on 21 drinkers and concluded that so long as the participants thought that they were drinking regular beer, drinking alcohol-free beer had the same pleasure activation in the brain as downing regular beer. In other words, we can trick people into activating certain pleasure sensations in their brains.
This study made me reminisce about the kid who “got really high” from smoking oregano in high school, believing that his “friends” had given him marijuana. But I suppose, there is an oregano kid in all of us: For example, many consumers, when presented with samples of two identical food items –one labelled “regular” and the other “premium” – swear that the premium one tastes better. Some of us pay more for brand name medication when we are ill, believing (incorrectly) that it will make us better faster than the cheaper generic brands. Some people pay upwards of 200 euros to see an award-winning violinist perform in concert, but fail to recognize him playing in a subway station.
The Wageningen beer study is yet another research that reveals the power of our perception and how it can influence our brains and entrench our beliefs. While we might believe that we can taste the difference between an apple, a potato, and an onion, if we were to be blindfolded and have our nostrils covered, these distinct tastes become quite indistinguishable. We know (thanks to the Journal of Wine Economics) that even the most experienced wine connoisseurs sometimes fail to distinguish red wine from white wine if few drops of red dye are added. At a more social level, if we perceive someone to be likeable, we are more likely to agree with them; but when the same message is delivered by someone we perceive as unlikeable, then we are more likely to be dismissive of them.
So while you celebrate this holiday season, reflect on how your perceptions influence your brain activation and ultimately your beliefs. While you’re at it, eat some onions blindfolded with loved ones and try getting drunk on alcohol-free beer while talking to your disagreeable uncle. Who knows, you just might have “fun.”
Mark Kawakami, assistant professor at the Faculty of Law