The nature vs nurture debate is about as old as our inclination to record our thoughts and questions about childhood, child rearing, growing up, and becoming an adult. Culture and upbringing greatly impact how we behave but, fascinatingly, it also influences brain function, changing the way that we perceive and interact with the world around us.

Our environment shapes our perception and our experience, and our sensory preferences.

What we like to eat and drink, the colors we gravitate towards, the clothes and fabrics we wear, the sounds that we find comforting and familiar are directly linked to the environment and circumstances of our upbringing. It’s not until I reached my 30s that I realized how much my environment had affected me throughout my life and how much I had already worked to expand my sensory horizons.

I was born in Germany in the 1980s, which means I spent a lot of time under grey skies, feeling the cold and damp of northern Europe, and eating food, fruits, and vegetables that were available to us at that time. No mangoes or pineapples, danke very much, but those gourmet Dutch and Swiss cheeses and chocolates you can only find at specialty stores in the U.S.? Yep, hand over fist for us: available pretty much anywhere. 

I use the term “sensory ecosystem” a lot in our virtual tasting events because I find it’s the easiest way to encourage our guests to reflect upon where and when their preferences might have been created. Much of what I do is bust myths, mostly about wine but also about music, cheese, and chocolate, and to uncover those hidden gems that we didn’t know we could love. Why? Because when we haven’t really tried – or “tasted” – them yet (or we tasted gross versions of them), how could we know if we do or don’t love them?

For those who say “I hate opera (or bluegrass or rap)” or “I don’t drink Chardonnay (or Merlot or Pinot Noir),” I would challenge them to ask themselves on a deep level why this is. Is the musical genre or grape variety something they’ve experienced many times and actively dislike? Is it a prejudice instilled by someone along the path of growing up, perhaps? Or is it something akin to peer pressure or succumbing to “what people say?” Example: Riesling is sweet, and I don’t like sweet wine. Truth: Riesling is not always sweet (in fact it’s most often not sweet), and most people who try really good, dry Riesling love it.

Whether a child is musically inclined or prefers playing sports can just as easily be a result of what that child experiences in the home as an innate talent present since birth. Some of us know for sure whether a particular talent or preference comes from an inner talent or an outside influence, and often it’s a combination of both nature and nurture. I’m musically inclined for sure, and I’ve been singing practically since the first time I could open my mouth. I believe this is an innate talent with which I was born, and I’m equally as sure that growing up in a household that valued and created music almost on a daily basis was instrumental in allowing that innate talent to make itself known and then to flourish.

Perception is the interpretation of what we sense.

This video on perception and environment reminds us that if a group of, say, 10 people all witness the same event, not all 10 will necessarily remember all the events exactly as they unfolded, or exactly as the other nine remembered it. Our motivations, past experiences, culture, and daily experiences all influence our perception of environmental variables, the article goes on to say, all of which is to say that it is almost impossible to sense or perceive a thing or event without being influenced – and sometimes prejudiced – by circumstances that have happened in our past and therefore color that perception.

Our understanding of our senses is shaped by our culture and environment, and continues to be shaped even as we age. Just think about all the foods you hated as a kid (hello, broccoli!) and now like (as in I can literally eat a head of broccoli a day now), and vice versa. Or consider how some cultures consume things that you wouldn’t, not even over your own dead body! The beauty in all this is that we have the power to educate and grow our perception and expand the sensory ecosystem in which we choose to live. That doesn’t mean we have to like everything, or even try everything, but it is an invitation to take a hard look at the things you love (and don’t) and to ask yourself whether you’re satisfied with where your sensory perception lies or whether it’s something you might like to challenge yourself to expand.

You never know what you might fall in love with!

More from Five Senses Tastings

The 10 Commandments of Dinner Parties (from an anxious hostess)
Through the multiple high-anxiety, ultra chaotic dinner parties I have under my belt, I have discovered 10 commandments to make dinner parties less chaotic for any anxious hostess. 

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