Tea, Porcelain, and Our Brains—yes, there IS a connection here!

coffee-beans,-grinder-webAroma . . .

There is nothing quite like the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee, at least to sleep-deprived me.

And if you—like me—feel as though just smelling the coffee makes you less sleepy, you may be experiencing an actual biological effect. Really! Some research studies have indicated that coffee’s aroma alone is enough to activate several genes and proteins that have antioxidant, anti-stress, and energy metabolism roles.*

The aroma of tea may also work on us physiologically. Its scent can evoke a positive response because we associate it with tea’s pleasing flavor, possibly serving to relax us.†

Studies abound for teasing out the effects of tea aromas because “smell leaves an imprint on the memory circuits” and can therefore be used in therapy for those with cognitive decline; in Britain, the aroma of teapots is used in work with the elderly—the scent rekindles their younger years.†

Anticipation . . .

In thinking about this power of aromas to transport a person across years, there is one particular new-textbook-smell that always induces a feeling of anticipation for me, taking me right back to elementary school, in a happy way. This expectation of learning segues into a fascinating and absolutely lovely exhibit of porcelain currently at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

As guest curator Shirley Mueller explained as we toured her art & science exhibit, Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain,‡ our brains do react when we anticipate learning something, as well as when we see something beautiful. And her exhibit provides opportunities for these instinctive neural responses in spades!

Beauty . . .

My daughter and I learned a lot about early export Chinese porcelain—items produced specifically to be exported to Europe—as we oohed and aahed over the many pieces displayed, including this pair of tea caddies:

pair-tea-caddies_montage-web
These caddies probably were used to store two different types of tea, distinguished by the caddy lids—one being white on blue and the other blue on white.

The beauty of the caddies is also no accident.

As humans, we want things to be beautiful, and as Shirley pointed out, we like to have beautiful things in our homes—we are sort of hardwired for this. In addition, with tea being a luxury item in the West in the 1600s, those lucky enough to be able to afford it wanted to display it along with its accoutrements (hence the eventual tea table, tea cart, china cabinet, and so on). Multiple reasons for the imported porcelain to be pretty!

Tea . . .

In the 1600s, the Chinese teas most likely imported to the West would have been those that traveled well, including Lapsang Souchong black tea (thoroughly dried with pine smoke), green gunpowder (its rolled leaves leave less surface area for the tea to absorb moisture or aromas), and the fermented pu-erh. Visitors to the exhibit can smell these teas (provided by TeaHaus) for themselves in this interactive display:

TH display-crop-web

If you’re wondering why Earl Grey is included, as it would not have been one of the teas exported early on, there is some evidence that bergamot was soon used in the West to mask the flavor of inferior teas (see my earlier post). Eventually, of course, Earl Grey developed into a tea that continues to be well-loved by Westerners.
tea-1039-web

Combined . . .

A cup of tea is indeed a thing of beauty at my home.

And its fragrant aroma may well transport me back in time . . . perhaps to dreaming about Europe at a time when I wouldn’t have been able to afford tea.

Nah. It just reminds me to get back to work!


*”Study results from H. S. Seo and colleagues update understanding of sleep deprivation,” Medical Devices & Surgical Technology Week, p. 369. August 10, 2008.
King, J. “Therapeutic effects of tea aromas,” Tea & Coffee Trade Journal 170(7):36. July 1998.
Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain, exhibit by Shirley M. Mueller, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana. May 26–October 22, 2017. Click here for more information about the exhibit, which is ongoing.
NOTE: Teas shown in exhibit are available at TeaHaus.

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