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Baffling Science Hoaxes: Why Did We Believe in the Tongue Map?

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Everyone reading this has got a tongue. Everyone reading this has, probably, also heard the old adage about how different parts of the tongue taste different things. For decades, this misconception stayed alive. It was still being taught when I was in grade school. My question is; why?

We sometimes laugh at the obviously wrong so-called facts of yesteryear, especially if they can be easily checked. How could people believe that, for example, the uterus wandered around the body of a woman? That's insane. But we have our own modern myths, ones that can be easily checked and debunked, but for the most part aren't. The major one is the tongue map. Almost everyone reading this had at least one teacher who pulled out a diagram of a tongue and pointed to different areas, talking about how this one tasted sweetness and that one bitterness.

This diagram, and enduring myth, began in 1901, in Germany, were D.P. Hanig wrote a conservative little paper that mentioned that different areas of the tongue seemed slightly more sensitive to different tastes. In 1942, Edwin Boring, of Harvard, picked Hanig's ideas and ran with them in his book, Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology. Some say Boring mistranslated Hanig's text. Others say he simply stressed it. However it happened, over time, different sensitivities became total ability. It wasn't until the 1970s when Virginia Collings, a physiological researcher, repeated the test and found that the sensitivities were there but made little-to-no practical difference. Even then, the myth kept chugging along for decades in actual biology programs.


I have to wonder; why. We all have tongues, don't we? We've all tasted things. What teachers were telling us conflicted directly with all our experience. It had to have conflicted with their own experience. Why did it keep getting told? I think, in part, because the truth was worth a lot less than the story. No one particularly suffered because of the myth. It didn't cost anyone anything. On the other hand, it was great small talk, or at least a good way to get kids to pay attention for about another five minutes, until the bell rang. And it's the story, not the truth, that I think is the reason it got so thoroughly debunked on the internet. Once the groundwork was laid, and nearly everyone on Earth had "heard about that somewhere," it suddenly became worth contradicting. It's interesting that debunkery, including this article, is more a triumph of one good story over another, instead of a final breakthrough of truth. Makes you wonder what other myths people could start.

Top Image: Flickr

Via Third Age and JSTOR.