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Why people fall for misinformation - Joseph Isaac

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In 1901, David Hänig published research that led to what we know today as the taste map: an illustration that divides the tongue into four separate areas. It has since been published in textbooks and newspapers. There is just one problem: the map is wrong. So how do misconceptions like this spread, and what makes a fake fact so easy to believe? Joseph Isaac dives into the world of misinformation.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Joseph Isaac
  • Director Bálint Gelley
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Art Director Bálint Halasi
  • Storyboard Artist Daniel Gray
  • Animator Bálint Halasi
  • Compositor Bálint Halasi
  • Music József Iszlai
  • Sound Designer József Iszlai
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
The tongue map is among the most recognizable images today, but its accuracy has long been disproven by experts within the field. Despite this, it remains a persistent illustration for many of how we experience taste. What are the factors that led to its spread?

In the years since the tongue map began to first spread, some scientists have explored the factors that led to its creation. Chief among these includes Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, a taste researcher who studies sensory perceptions of food, and whose efforts have led to the map’s discontinuation in many school textbooks. In her 1993 article “The Biological Basis of Food Perception and Acceptance,” Bartoshuk studies some of the myth behind the taste map. She points to the psychologist Edwin Boring as a contributing factor in the tongue map’s development, due to his incomplete representation of Hänig’s work in his 1942 book Sensation And Perception In The History Of Experimental Psychology. Boring’s book was published after the tongue map’s first appearance. However, it illustrates how important context can be lost when even the most experienced researchers reproduce information.

It is also important to note that, while this lesson refers to flavor and taste interchangeably, they are not the same thing, as flavor is produced from the combination of taste and smell. As Dr. Bartoshuk explains, "When we talk about “taste” in our everyday lives, we really refer to the sensations evoked when we eat. This includes olfaction, particularly retronasal olfaction…When we chew and swallow foods, odors emitted from the foods are forced up behind the palate and into the nose from the rear. The odors then make their way to the same olfactory receptors (retronasal olfaction). Orthonasal olfaction tells us about odors in the world; retronasal olfaction tells us about the odors emitted by the foods we are eating. The combination of true taste and retronasal olfaction is called “flavor.”..."

In one recreation of Hänig’s experiment, Virginia Collings (a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh) recorded differences between her data and Hänig’s original conclusions. In her 1974 study, “Human taste response as a function of locus of stimulation on the tongue and soft palate,” she found that the greatest difference came from the bitter quality. Collings writes that “Hanig reported decreasing thresholds from the front to the back of the tongue; in this study, the lowest tongue threshold was found at the fungiform papillae on the front of the tongue. However, the thresholds for both urea and quinine were lower on the soft palate than on any tongue locus, similar to the findings of Henkin & Christiansen (1967). Hanig used a brush to present the stimulus, and since the soft palate and the vallate papillae are very close together, inadvertent stimulation of the soft palate may account for the difference in results.”

For readers literate in German, Dr. Hänig’s dissertation, Zur Psychophysik des Geschmackssinnes, details the specific methods and illustrations that accompanied his experiments.

For an overview of terminology related to problematic information (such as misinformation and disinformation), see Caroline Jack’s “Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information.”

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Joseph Isaac
  • Director Bálint Gelley
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Art Director Bálint Halasi
  • Storyboard Artist Daniel Gray
  • Animator Bálint Halasi
  • Compositor Bálint Halasi
  • Music József Iszlai
  • Sound Designer József Iszlai
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
  • See more