In a recent post I wrote about a beer tasting session with Pete Brown at the Green Man Festival, in which he talked about how the music we hear may influence our perception of flavour. In the UK, much of the influential research in this area comes from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford.
The Laboratory was founded in 1997 and the team there study
the integration of information across the different sensory modalities
(hearing, vision, touch, taste, and smell). This is an area of
research that is changing the way we view our senses. Traditionally, vision,
hearing, touch, smell, and taste have been studied in isolation. However, recent
research has shown sensory processing within a single sense is modulated by
information from the other senses.
One area of interest to the Oxford laboratory is how
our understanding of multisensory perception can be used by the food industry
to improve the perception of foods and drinks. Professor Charles Spence, who
heads the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, was interviewed for a recent Guardian
article by Amy Fleming (link below). She notes that much of the lab’s work is
funded by Unilever, while Prof Spence sits on the scientific advisory board of
Therefore, this is an area of research that people should be
aware of, in order to make informed purchasing decisions. For example, it has
been found that ‘crunchy’ correlates with fresh, so food manufactures are
making crisps and so forth that sound crunchy even though they are not so fresh.
The information also informs product design and marketing. More beneficially
(for us), food manufacturers are using crossmodal perception research findings
to gradually reduce the salt and sugar content of foods (to meet Government
guidelines). One of the early results of crossmodal perception, for instance,
was that product colour affects perceptions of flavour and sweetness.
Charles Spence has written a book with his colleague
Betina Piqueras-Fiszman called ‘The Perfect Meal’ (published next week in the UK), which
presents the laboratory's recent findings on crossmodal perception for general readers. It
is structured around the dining experience in a restaurant. It looks at
the factors that influence flavour perception, including visual, tactile, cognitive and aural
stimuli. For example, the subtle effects of the colour of the plates, the shape
of the glass, the names of dishes, and the background music. So, for instance, whisky
tastes better in a “woody” room, while food plated to resemble a work of art
tastes better than when it is indifferently put on a plate.
A signature dish for crossmodal perception is the ‘Sound
of the Sea’ served at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant. This seafood and
fish dish plays on taste, aroma, sound and the overall nostalgic experience of
the seaside. It is served with an iPod (inside a conch shell from which
headphones emerge) playing seaside sounds, specifically waves crashing on a
beach. The flat glass plate on which the food is served is placed on top of a rectangular
box containing a bed of sand, while edible sand (made from tapioca), pieces of
edible seaweed, and a wave of salty sea foam (vegetable and seaweed broth)
surround the fish and seafood. Charles Spence collaborated with Heston
Blumenthal on the creation of this dish, which is based on work concerning
sound and flavour done in the Oxford laboratory.
So, if your waiter comes across all Derren Brown, there may
be crossmodal perception at play. When it comes to food advertising, packaging
and the perception of processed food products, however, you (the consumer) are
not supposed to be aware of the psychology being applied. So, now is a good
time to read up on what’s being cooked up in the lab (links below).
For instance, a recent paper from the laboratory found that the perception
of green, yellow, and orange drinks was influenced by the shape of the glass in
which the drink was presented, and the authors advised that for advertising and
product packaging the appropriateness of the glassware be carefully considered.
Another paper confirmed that fruit juices were considered 'sweet and low in
sourness' were consistently matched with rounder shapes and speech sounds, and lower-pitched
sounds, and were generally liked more; meanwhile, those juices that were rated
as tasting 'sour' were consistently matched with angular shapes, sharper speech
sounds, and sounds with a higher pitch, and were liked less.
The Oxford team have also found that the sounds of a food product’s
name are generally associated with both sensory and conceptual attributes. This
forms part of a wider area of study, looking at how retail spaces can provide
non-verbal cues to improve sales.
Pete Brown on beer and music
Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Department of Experimental
‘Charles Spence: The food scientist changing the way we
eat’, by Amy Fleming
Make your own 'Sound of the Sea'
‘Beverage perception and consumption: The influence of the
container on the perception of the contents.’ Wan and Spence, 2015 (in press).
Food Quality and Preference 39: 131-140.
‘Do you say it like you eat it? The sound symbolism of food
names and its role in the multisensory product experience.’ Favalli et al., 2013.
Food Research International 54: 760-791.
‘Retail atmospherics and in-store non-verbal cues: an
introduction.’ Grewel et al., 2014. Psychology and Marketing 31: 469-471.