The Tongue Doesn’t Have Zones for Different Tastes

Daven Hiskey 34
tongueToday I found out that the tongue doesn’t have zones specializing in specific tastes, contrary to popular belief.  So why did your third grade teacher tell you they did and make you memorize each zone, then mark you down when you got one of them wrong which resulted in you not getting to go play with your friends that night because you’d promised your mom the night before that you had them down pat and didn’t need to study anymore?  Well it turns out mostly because Mrs. Schultz was full of crap and very possibly a decedent of the devil himself; or if not him, a minor daemon of the second class.  I mean, how many times do you have to explain to her that you can taste sweetness and the other major tastes on every part of your tongue, before she believes you and stops trying to teach you things that are obviously false? (I’m not bitter.)

What were we talking about again?  Oh that’s right tongues and taste buds.  It turns out this myth got its start when a certain Harvard Psychologist Edwin G. Boring (I bet his lectures were exciting… *crickets*) mistranslated a German paper written in 1901 titled “Zur Psychophysik des Geschmackssinnes” or in English “Paper that is soon to be completely debunked, along with being mistranslated by some Boring Harvard guy” (eh, eh, ‘Boring Harvard Guy’? *crickets chirping*).

On a side note, Edwin Boring also was the creator of the visual perception test of the ambiguous drawing depicting either a young woman or an old woman, which is now known as the “Boring Figure”. (I can’t make this stuff up)

The tongue paper, written by German Scientist D.P. Hanig, outlined Hanig’s research on the four known basic tastes.  He got together a group of subjects and tested the main tastes on each of them on various parts of their tongues until he figured he had a good map put together on where they tasted various tastes the most.  Being that, in reality, everybody more or less tastes everything equally with extremely slight variations that are more or less random from person to person, it can be presumed that he pretty much just made the whole set of results up so he could get another paper published and make himself look good to his university chums.

This myth endured, even among scientists, until the 1970′s and still endures today thanks to certain third grade teachers the world over.   In the 1970′s, scientists decided they might actually want to think about testing the commonly held notion of “tongue maps” that go against the personal experience of pretty much everyone who has ever tasted anything… ever.  They quickly found out that Hanig’s paper would be better served as toilet tissue instead of reading material.

Finally, here’s a little bonus factoid on taste to impress the ladies at the cocktail parties with or to help you out in Final Jeopardy.  There are not, as most people think, just four main tastes detected by our taste buds (those being sweetness, saltiness, bitterness,  and sourness).  In fact, Japanese scientists in the early 1900′s (before Hanig published his brilliant paper) discovered a fifth, which is called “umami”, which taste like chicken… or rather is commonly translated as “meaty, brothy, or savory”; basically the flavor associated with meat.

So next time someone tries to tell you there are tongue maps and ultimately end up getting you grounded from getting to play outside, punch them in the face continually until their mouth starts bleeding, then ask if the blood tastes bitter on all parts of their tongue *puts on sunglasses* or just the back.

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34 Comments »

  1. sillycat January 10, 2010 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    haha!

    Loved the Horatio oneliner reference :D

  2. Me January 10, 2010 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    Good points, I think I will definitely subscribe! I’ll go and read some more! What do you see the future of this being?

  3. Bruce May 21, 2010 at 11:52 pm - Reply

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  4. Chris J December 2, 2010 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    The lame part is that we’ll start using the term “umami” instead of the English equivalent “savory”.

    It’s not like the Japanese say “umami, salty, sweet, sour, bitter”. They use all Japanese words, let’s use all English words.

  5. phish December 18, 2010 at 9:39 am - Reply

    Although, that is one awesome tongue in that picture!

  6. Kevin January 20, 2011 at 11:49 am - Reply

    That was very amusing and did not leave a bitter after taste on the back of my tongue. I often believed the same thing, your tongue couldn’t possibly work like that, I can believe the brain is more or less sectioned off.

    But is there a higher concentration of taste buds on parts of the tongue in turn make those parts more sensitive?

    KJ

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven January 20, 2011 at 7:15 pm - Reply

      @Kevin: Yes, that is correct. However, as far as science can tell, all taste buds have the ability to taste all the main taste groups, albeit not necessarily exactly through the same mechanism within the taste bud. So there are areas that have more taste buds than others and that varies greatly from person to person, but those regions aren’t specialized for a specific taste.

  7. Patrick January 23, 2011 at 3:52 pm - Reply

    This the kind of girl I need, please God, I really want to marry her !
    She is so sexy and beautiful. The perfect female human for me.

  8. stephen January 27, 2011 at 7:19 pm - Reply

    that got to be some crazy photoshop shit going on. If ot look me up if u ever in Glasgow, Scotland! U hot and u know it!!!

  9. Skia January 28, 2011 at 12:34 am - Reply

    It would surprise many people to learn how many commonly accepted scientific theories are actually incorrect! Many scientific theories do not stand up when confronted by the facts of everyday experiences and facts. Often, the theories are backed by well-known, wealthy and respected scientists, so they become accepted by the educational field and are consequently taught to children as “FACT” when they remain unproved theories.

    One prime example is the THEORY of Evolution. It has yet to be proven, but it is being taught to children as a FACT.

    Another example is the Theory of Flame Ionization Detection. This theory is critical to understanding how the Flame Ionization Detector (FID) works, as used on Gas Chromatographs. The problem with this theory is that it states that ONLY C-C or C-H bonds can be ionized and detected, but in actually usage C-O, C=O, S-H and S=O bonds are also ionized and detected. Therefore, this theory needs to be re-examined and the REAL operation of the FID needs to be determined.

    @stephen, as for the girl’s tongue, it is quite within possible human variations of human tongue lengths. I knew a man who could touch his tongue to the bridge of his nose! A man with a tongue like that could certainly keep his woman happy!

  10. Zack February 12, 2011 at 6:18 pm - Reply

    This is incorrect, the tongue does have some topological distribution of taste GPCR expression.

    http://biology.ucsd.edu/labs/zuker/pdfs/hoon_Cell96_1999.pdf

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven February 16, 2011 at 10:02 pm - Reply

      @Zack: See comment to Sara

  11. Jack February 13, 2011 at 10:32 am - Reply

    To be accurate it was not the fault of D.P. Hanig it´s just that the later scientists misinterpreted his drawings and that´s how the myth was created. the fact is all taste receptors on the tongue can taste every taste(pun intended) but however every receptor has a sensitivity against just one taste.

  12. Sara February 16, 2011 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    not true. we tested it in my high school Anatomy class with the four basic tastes – sour, sweet, bitter, and salty. some parts of the tongue can’t taste bitter or salty.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven February 16, 2011 at 9:59 pm - Reply

      @Sara: Given a lot of the research into how exactly taste buds work and the like is fairly new (relatively speaking) I’m not surprised you learned that in high school. Your teacher’s knowledge was probably operating on quite old data. No one’s saying taste buds are evenly distributed across the whole surface of the tongue. Simply that “the tongue doesn’t actually have zones specializing in specific tastes”, specifically referring to the classic “tongue map”, but this is also the case in general. The evidence thus far indicates that any given undamaged taste bud can detect all five main tastes. The density, and even to some extent the concentrated location, of taste buds is different from person to person, though, and changes quite a bit as you age. Some people are super tasters (high density) and some are non-tasters (low density), and most are in between. You can learn how to check which you are from home here.

      As noted, taste receptor cells themselves typically respond to all of the five accepted main tastes, with some evidence that there may be a slight variation due to how these cells distinguish certain of the tastes, ie: some cells might not function perfectly for some reason and so only can detect a subset of the normal tastes (perhaps the ion channels aren’t functioning well on some taste bud resulting in the inability to taste salty or sour tastes on that bud, for instance); this is not typical and these cells are replaced about every two weeks, so unless the difference is due to your genetic makeup, you should have more or less perfectly functioning taste buds that can all detect all five tastes. Because of this, some theorize that any measured difference from one part of the tongue or another has more to do with olfactory influence (smell working with the taste buds) rather than with the taste buds themselves.

      Thus, the difference in strength of flavor of a certain part of the tongue is almost always just a factor of the density of taste buds on that particular part of the tongue, which varies greatly from person to person, combined with what you are smelling at a given moment. For most people, this difference isn’t typically noticeable outside of things tasting stronger on parts of the tongue where you have a higher density of taste buds, such as the front half and sides of the tongue, compared to the back, which typically has a much lower density of taste-buds from these other areas. And, of course, whether you have a stuffy nose or how strong smelling something is or the like. Thus: “the tongue doesn’t actually have zones specializing in specific tastes”.

      Here are a few places you can learn more about this : Taste Receptors; Understanding Taste Buds; How Taste Buds Work; Taste Buds; Taste Bud (diagram); What Are Taste Buds

  13. Ygrecs March 16, 2011 at 4:02 am - Reply

    Evolution IS a fact. Now we can do organic studies to show that man evolved from a creature that was our ancestor, just like the apes. The chimp is therefor our cousin. That’s fact, revealed by science. You must be a religious fan I think.

  14. Skylor March 21, 2011 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    OMG! I had a 3rd grade teacher named Mrs. Shultz, and in that class we did a blind-folded taste test and learned the areas of the tongue! How creepy… (read the opening paragraph.)

  15. jimmywut May 20, 2011 at 4:31 am - Reply

    Today I found out that, that girl would probly have to give the best head in the world.

  16. correcting you May 23, 2011 at 8:01 am - Reply

    not quite true, while the entire tongue can taste all types of ‘flavours’, the receptors responsible for each (salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami)are found in differing concentrations in different sections of the tongue. so those tongue maps are indicating where the receptors specific for that sensation are in the highest concentration

  17. DaveM June 10, 2011 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    And I hope she doesn’t have a latex allergy.

  18. nico April 6, 2012 at 12:06 am - Reply

    Umami is not associated with meat flavour. Umami is associated with L-glutamate, for instance found in soy sauce or, more in general, in salty things. Of course, soy sauce is used on meat in Asian countries.

    Now, to the trolling religious idiot who says that the THEORY of evolution is just a theory: get a dictionary and learn what a scientific theory is. Scientists start from theories and try to prove them. They also have no problems, if a theory is disproven, to get on with it and start using the new theory.
    Religious people start with a theory and stop there. And won’t change even after centuries of proofs.

    Thousands of proofs exist for evolution zero for god.

  19. Oliver Schöning April 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm - Reply

    I would like to have some Peer Review papers for this..
    Take the “facts” from this website with a grain or salt, or a spoonful.

    Interesting though.. gonna research more on this.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven April 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm - Reply

      @Oliver: The web is riddled with misinformation. I created this website specifically for a place people could go on the web and be sure that as far as we humans know when I wrote the article, whatever facts are in it are true. I put my sources so that people can verify for themselves. You should absolutely research more on your own though, if you are still skeptical. People should always do that anyways. If they did, the myth that tongues have taste maps would have been popularly dispelled ages ago. :-)

  20. tii May 12, 2012 at 7:44 am - Reply

    I was curoius if the taste of hot sauce/chilli/etc. is also a taste or, like I read it somewhere, a feeling of pain. Can anyone post something aubout this? I was fighting about it so many times and heard so many pro and con arguments, that I don’t know what’s right or wrong.

  21. nairobijones July 26, 2012 at 1:54 am - Reply

    While the article was interesting, going on and on about your school experience, lost me. I know you were going for humor, but it was distracting more than funny.

  22. JB August 11, 2012 at 10:56 am - Reply

    Interesting tongue! She would be popular with the girls!

  23. Timhole January 4, 2013 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    Did you mean to say factoid?

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey January 16, 2013 at 12:26 pm - Reply

      @Timhole: Yes

  24. Bruce Hirsh April 19, 2014 at 6:48 pm - Reply

    Regarding Mrs. Schultz’s lineage, I’m sure you meant El Diablo’s “descendant”, and not “decedent”.

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