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