How Sounds and Words Affect Taste

Background noises greatly affect how we taste food. I wrote about this earlier in the year — pointing out that this is the probable cause of bland in-flight meals — but how else can background noise affect our perception of taste, and can our non-gustatory senses affect how we taste, too?

To test this, molecular gastronomist Heston Blumenthal and professor Charles Spence conducted a fascinating experiment with some ‘bacon and egg’ ice cream and some varied soundtracks. The full experiment is described in a short extract from the book Art and the Senses that also neatly summarises the various ways that our taste perception can be altered by our other senses:

The disambiguation of the flavour of a food dish can be achieved by a number of means: either visually, by changing the colour of the food, verbally by means of labelling, by presenting pictures or other cues on the packaging, and/or by the presentation of auditory cues. […] Furthermore, even saying the word ‘cinnamon’ has been shown to activate the olfactory cortex (i.e. the part of the brain that processes smells). […] Playing the sizzling bacon soundtrack at the ‘Art and the Senses’ conference may therefore have influenced the audience’s perception of the bacon flavour in the ice cream simply by making them think of bacon. […] It is at present an open question as to whether simply writing the word bacon on the screen in the front of the auditorium would have had the same effect.

Is there a name for this experience? The best I can come up with is ‘gustatory crossmodality‘, but that sounds far too exciting (and is most likely incorrect). I’m hoping for a pithy, Gladwell-esque ‘Something effect’.

via @mocost