Forget What You Learned In School About Your Tastebuds

Maybe you remember seeing in school the “tongue map” — the little diagram of the tongue with different sections neatly cordoned off for different taste receptors. Sweet in the front, salty and sour on the sides, and bitter in the back. Well, that information is wrong. In fact, it was debunked by chemosensory scientists long ago. The ability to taste sweet, salty, sour and bitter isn’t sectioned off to different parts of the tongue. The receptors that pick up these tastes are actually distributed all over. So where did this map you saw in school come from? It has its roots in a 1901 paper by German scientist David P. Hänig. He set out to measure the thresholds for taste reception around the edges of the tongue by dripping stimuli corresponding to salty, sweet, sour and bitter tastes in intervals. While it’s true that the tip and edges of the tongue are particularly sensitive to tastes, other areas of the tongue are also able to perceive these tastes, just not as strongly. There’s just one problem with Hänig’s paper — he didn’t present that information. Despite the scientific evidence, the tongue map has burrowed its way into common knowledge and is still taught in many classrooms and textbooks today. The true test doesn’t require a laboratory, though. Brew a cup of coffee, crack open a soda, touch a salted pretzel to the tip of your tongue — in any test, it becomes clear that the tongue can perceive these tastes all over.