Secrets of the Senses
Posted by Science Oxford on December 9, 2010 | comments
Review by Alison Cooper
An audience braving the bitter cold were rewarded with a warm welcome at Science Oxford Live on the 25th November 2010 to explore the five senses of touch, taste, hearing, sight and smell, with neuroscientist Professor Charles Spence. They cringed at the world’s loudest crisp packet, now withdrawn from sale as found to be too irritating and lingered over chocolate and wine, while an explanation of innovative packaging for cleaning products set the mood for spring. Speaker Charles Spence took the time to satisfy their questioning in full, explaining how designers of all kinds delight in playing with the sensory experiences scientists seek to understand.
He illustrated how this is all in the spirit of science as combining different sensual elements can both entice and confuse our response. More red colour and things taste sweeter as we naturally think of ripe berries and listening to chicken noises can enhance the taste of egg. Our brains mix the cocktail of information from our senses to produce our overall experience. Could this be why as the saying goes, ‘food always tastes better outdoors?’ Familiarity can influence this super additive sensual effect, a drop of sugar on the tongue can increase ability to smell almond with salt having the same effect for a Japanese palate more used to this taste combination.
Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal is capitalising on this phenomenon, pairing blood orange with orange beetroot for an unexpected colour and taste combination and using digitised sea sounds to accompany fish. This interesting innovation can be sampled in his restaurant the Fat Duck near Slough. The Science Oxford audience suggested that while the medium is novel the idea of using sounds, especially music to enhance the eating experience is age old. I will resist the temptation to quote Shakespeare for fear of sounding too cheesy.
The audience were very willing to test things out for themselves by sampling dark and milk chocolate squares. For me, it was absolutely certain even before catching a whiff, milk chocolate was clearly wobbly rounded shape buba with a medium deep not played on a woodwind. Dark high percentage coco could only be spiky tuki played on a violin. While this seemed to reflect the audience consensus, and previous studies, there was plenty of space for individuality. A musician pointed out that he is so in tune with sound elements that other sensual cues fade into the background.
The audience were intrigued about how sensory cues could be used to influence settings for social benefit, such as painting walls in prison a particular shade of pale pink, shown to be calming, and careful choice of colour and scent in hospitals to appropriately stimulate and relax. They warned that in some situations reactions could be mixed if people suspect artificial sense enhancement is at work. Charles Spence emphasised that he considers the underlying intent and execution of manipulation is the important issue. Personally, he appreciates sensual enhancement where it increases enjoyment of an experience. A starter for a sizzling debate?