When British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal wanted to present a unique style of dining in Berkshire restaurant The Fat Duck, he turned to the element of sound. His dish, ‘Sound of the Sea’, consists of oysters, sea urchin, razor clams and panko sand — and hidden in a conch shell, an iPod producing the sound of crashing waves.
This multi-sensory experiment was the result of Blumenthal’s collaborations with Oxford’s Cross-Modal Research Laboratory leader, Dr. Charles Spence. The idea that sound effects how we taste inspired Spence to pursue years of extensive research on the subject. In one of his most famous trials, candy consumed by volunteers listening to high-pitched piano was overwhelmingly perceived as sweet, but the same toffee took on a more bitter taste when consumed while listening to a low-pitched brass soundtrack.
In another test, participants were given samples of bacon and egg ice cream; volunteers reported that the ice cream had a more eggy taste when presented with a soundtrack of clucking chickens, while the bacon flavor was reported as stronger when listening to the sound of sizzling bacon. Similar results have been found across many food-sound related tests.
Multi-sensory linkages such as this, which Spence calls sensation transference, can be found across all senses. A blending or “crossing over” of taste, sight, touch, smell and hearing is common in everyone and is often a result of emotional associations. Our life experiences impact our structural brain activity so that certain stimuli have a corresponding neurological effect; for instance the sound of a microwave beeping may cause salivation, or the song played in an ice-cream truck may bring up a strong desire for a sweet taste. This is also commonly known as Pavlovian response, where the brain’s conditioning of perceptual centers occur through repeated and/or deeply emotional/impactful/traumatic experiences. The sound of the ice-cream truck doesn’t simply just announce the presence of ice cream; all of a sudden you can magically taste ice cream, you are excited, activated, and your mind is splashed with the bright colors of joyful childhood memories.
Some of these experiences are collective, while others are specific to our own personal lives. For instance, whenever I prepare guacamole, I always hear the Gomez album Bring It On in my head. Are there any foods or tastes that you associate with music or sound? What are some examples of sound affecting how you visually see things? Do you think music can affect your sense of smell? What about how you physically perceive your environment? It’s fascinating to take a look at our patterns of sensual perception and investigate how our personal experiences have shaped, and continue to shape, our interpretation of the world and of ourselves.
Photo by FlaviaC (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]