Do We Have Taste Bud Regions?

(Last Updated On: April 30, 2020)

Do We Have Taste Bud Regions?

Either you were taught this as a child or you saw that taste bud diagram at some point and never questioned it. You know the one, where you supposedly taste sweet things with the tip of your tongue and bitter things with the back and all that. If you ever did some investigation, you probably put something sweet on the back of your tongue and realized you could taste it. So, what’s the deal? Do we actually have taste bud regions?

How Do Taste Buds Work?

First, we should probably clarify how taste buds actually work. For starters, your body doesn’t really make different types of taste buds. It’s not like your body would dedicate cells to just tasting sweet things. That seems inefficient. So your regional sensitivity on the tongue is probably a taste bud concentration thing.

You’re probably familiar with your saliva, which breaks down the food in your mouth. As far as your taste buds go, your saliva breaks them down well enough so little food particles can enter “taste pores” in the tongue. These give your tongue its texture (weird word, but it works we guess), containing various types of papillae that, with one exception, contain your taste buds. 

Do We Have Taste Bud Regions? No!

Yeah, as we mentioned earlier, if you’ve ever put a sweet thing on the back of your tongue and realized you could still taste something, you probably figured out the whole tongue map was a sham. 

Honestly, you could also have figured it out when someone told you that sweet was on the tip of the tongue because we lick sweet things like ice cream. Which is not… It’s not really how evolution works. 

Plus, that map doesn’t even have umami flavor.

Further Reading: What Is Umami Flavor?

Where Did the Taste Bud Map Come From?

Taste Bud Map

So if the taste map is not at all a thing, where did it come from?

Well its early iterations date back to 1901, with the translation of psychologist D.P. Hanig’s works. In that paper, Hanig suggested that the tongue had areas dedicated to the basic tastes we recognize. You know, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. 

By 1942, Harvard psychologist Edward G. Boring tried to apply some math to Hanig’s work. We’re not going into all the weird kinks with his methods, but Boring ended up finding that the tongue has more sensitive regions. These differences came out to be incredibly small, though. 

Too bad for science, because textbooks and the like took Boring’s research out of context and inflated the statement “some parts of the tongue are more sensitive.” Thus turning it into “there’s a taste bud map.”

Disproving the Taste Bud Map

Given that we can practically disprove the taste map by slapping things onto our tongues, it’s no surprise that the taste map would be quickly re-evaluated. By 1974 clinical psychologist Virginia B. Collings would come around and prove that the tongue had taste buds all over it and thus disproved the idea that “you could only taste sweet things with the tip of your tongue.”

She did find similar variations in taste bud sensitivity that Boring did, namely, the variations were super small.

Supertasters

It’s not a super common phenomenon, but there is a specific gene that can grant one’s tongue “super tasting powers.” Which might explain why some of your friends are absurdly picky?

The gene we linked is tied to bitter tastes, and while it might not be the specific source of super tasting (genetics are complicated and it’s not very common for a single switch to change everything), other genes are linked to liking sweet things or disliking alcohol. 

Supertasters generally have more sensitivity to bitter and spicy things, standing in contrast to “non-tasters.” Heck, maybe you tested this yourself in like, middle school or something. There are these strips of paper (PTC paper) that about 3/4ths of people register as tasting “bitter.” 

With all this tongue-talk, maybe consider looking at some tongues here?

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About Kyler 560 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and has just finished his undergraduate at the University of Washington. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019 and has accumulated so much random, general knowledge he'd rather not think about it. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.