Tag Archives: senses

Background Noise and Taste Perception

It has been sug­ges­ted that the physiolo­gic­al effects of pres­sur­isa­tion are respons­ible for the bland­ness of in-flight air­line meals. How­ever the real reas­on behind “dimin­ish­ing gust­at­ory food prop­er­ties” (food tast­ing rub­bish) while 32,000 feet above sea level could be a lot sim­pler: the back­ground noise.

A study con­duc­ted by Uni­lever R&D and the Uni­ver­sity of Manchester has shown that the back­ground noise exper­i­enced while fly­ing reduces the per­cep­tion of food prop­er­ties not related to sound (salt­i­ness, sweet­ness, etc.) while sim­ul­tan­eously increas­ing the per­cep­tion of food prop­er­ties related to sound (e.g. crunchiness)–in oth­er words, the back­ground noise we exper­i­ence while fly­ing could be respons­ible for the food we eat being taste­less but crunchy.

On pos­sible future applic­a­tions of the find­ings, the BBC reports:

“We are still at an early stage of pro­ceed­ings and this is a rel­at­ively small study to really draw defin­it­ive con­clu­sions from […] but they sug­gest that the retail sec­tor could well tail­or their choice of food for a giv­en envir­on­ment.”

Also in the group’s find­ings there is the sug­ges­tion that the over­all sat­is­fac­tion with the food aligned with the degree to which diners liked what they were hear­ing – a find­ing the research­ers are pur­su­ing in fur­ther exper­i­ments.

Embodied Cognition and How Objects Influence Our Perceptions

The phys­ic­al prop­er­ties of objects we inter­act with can sub­stan­tially influ­ence our opin­ion of unre­lated items and people.

Through a num­ber of nov­el exper­i­ments, MIT’s Joshua Ack­er­man has clearly shown how the tex­ture, weight, and oth­er phys­ic­al prop­er­ties of objects we touch affect our judge­ments and decisions (neatly sum­mar­ised by Ed Yong):

Weight is linked to import­ance, so that people car­ry­ing heavy objects deem inter­view can­did­ates as more ser­i­ous and social prob­lems as more press­ing. Tex­ture is linked to dif­fi­culty and harsh­ness. Touch­ing rough sand­pa­per makes social inter­ac­tions seem more adversari­al, while smooth wood makes them seem friend­li­er. Finally, hard­ness is asso­ci­ated with rigid­ity and sta­bil­ity. When sit­ting on a hard chair, nego­ti­at­ors take tough­er stances but if they sit on a soft one instead, they become more flex­ible.

These influ­ences are not trivi­al – they can sway how people react in import­ant ways, includ­ing how much money they part with, how coöperative they are with strangers, or how they judge an inter­view can­did­ate. […]

Accord­ing to Ack­er­man, these effects hap­pen because our under­stand­ing of abstract con­cepts is deeply rooted in phys­ic­al exper­i­ences. Touch is the first of our senses to devel­op. In the earli­est days of our lives, our abil­ity to feel things like tex­ture and tem­per­at­ure provides a tan­gible frame­work that we can use to under­stand more neb­u­lous notions like import­ance or per­son­al warmth. Even­tu­ally, the two become tied togeth­er, so that touch­ing objects can activ­ate the con­cepts that they are asso­ci­ated with.

Ed Yong goes on to describe how this “embod­ied cog­ni­tion” shows dir­ect rela­tion­ships with the meta­phors and idioms of the Eng­lish lan­guage, such as “heavy mat­ters”, the “grav­ity of the situ­ation”, a “rough day”, “coarse lan­guage”, a “hard-hearted” per­son and “being a rock”.

Sweetness and the Problem with Diet Sodas

The link between the sweet­ness of a food and its cal­or­ic con­tent may be a trait that our bod­ies have evolved to recog­nise. By dis­rupt­ing what could be a “fun­da­ment­al homeo­stat­ic, physiolo­gic­al pro­cess” by using arti­fi­cial sweeten­ers, we could be pro­mot­ing obesity.

That’s the con­clu­sion Jonah Lehr­er draws from a study that looks at how sweet tastes may be used to reg­u­late our cal­or­ic intake and the adverse effects of diet sodas.

Adult male Sprague-Daw­ley rats were giv­en dif­fer­en­tial exper­i­ence with a sweet taste that either pre­dicted increased cal­or­ic con­tent (gluc­ose) or did not pre­dict increased cal­or­ies (sac­char­in). We found that redu­cing the cor­rel­a­tion between sweet taste and the cal­or­ic con­tent of foods using arti­fi­cial sweeten­ers in rats res­ul­ted in increased cal­or­ic intake, increased body weight, and increased adipos­ity, as well as dimin­ished cal­or­ic com­pens­a­tion and blun­ted therm­ic responses to sweet-tast­ing diets. These res­ults sug­gest that con­sump­tion of products con­tain­ing arti­fi­cial sweeten­ers may lead to increased body weight and obesity by inter­fer­ing with fun­da­ment­al homeo­stat­ic, physiolo­gic­al pro­cesses.

The Benefits of Touching

‘Touch­i­er’ bas­ket­ball teams and play­ers (those who bump, hug and high five the most) are more suc­cess­ful than those who lim­it their non-play­ing phys­ic­al con­tact. Sim­il­arly, high­er sat­is­fac­tion has been repor­ted in romantic rela­tion­ships in which the part­ners touch more.

Just two of the find­ings from research look­ing at the import­ance of touch­ing in rela­tion­ships.

Stu­dents who received a sup­port­ive touch on the back or arm from a teach­er were nearly twice as likely to volun­teer in class as those who did not, stud­ies have found. A sym­path­et­ic touch from a doc­tor leaves people with the impres­sion that the vis­it las­ted twice as long, com­pared with estim­ates from people who were untouched. […] A mas­sage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depres­sion and strengthen a rela­tion­ship.

via @charliehoehn

More Psychology of Wine

Most psy­cho­logy stud­ies focus­ing on my good friend, wine, rely on apply­ing the sci­entif­ic meth­od to the tast­ing of dif­fer­ent wines, and this is done in one, rel­at­ively simple way: blind tast­ing.

Fin­ance blog­ger at Reu­ters, Felix Sal­mon, isn’t a fan of blind tast­ing, and after read­ing his emin­ently-quot­able piece on the sub­ject I tend to agree. The prob­lem, accord­ing to Sal­mon? We know that wine has a lot to do with con­text and, in tast­ing wine, objectiv­ity is over­val­ued.

This from Bob Mill­man:

It should be obvi­ous to any think­ing per­son that blind tast­ings neces­sar­ily favor–on a group vote basis–wines which offer imme­di­ate pleas­ure and grat­i­fic­a­tion. Left to their undir­ec­ted devices, the senses will almost always grav­it­ate to the obvi­ous and miss the subtle

and this from Sal­mon:

If you know exactly what it is that you’re tast­ing — a young first-growth wine, for example — then you can taste it in that light. Sim­il­arly, if you know that you’re look­ing at an Ad Rein­hardt paint­ing, you’ll be will­ing to spend a few minutes with it so that you can appre­ci­ate its sub­tleties. If you didn’t know it was a Rein­hardt, then you’d prob­ably just read it as a black mono­chrome and move on.

In that art­icle it is noted that pro­fes­sion­al wine taster Robert Park­er does not taste wine blind because of these issues, and in a later art­icle Sal­mon dis­cusses how at one event, when Park­er was per­suaded to taste blind a selec­tion of wines he had pre­vi­ously rated, he scored a once-reviled Bor­deaux as his favour­ite of the even­ing. The fol­low­ing quote from the piece looks at the futil­ity of (inher­ently sub­ject­ive) wine rat­ings:

Wine is not a fun­gible com­mod­ity, where one bottle is always the same as the next — quite the oppos­ite. But the fact that wine changes, from bottle to bottle and from month to month, rather defeats the pur­pose of [rank­ings and] magazines such as Wine Spec­tat­or.

The Front­al Cor­tex con­tin­ues by say­ing that “our sen­sa­tions require inter­pret­a­tion” and that “we parse their sug­ges­tions based upon whatever oth­er know­ledge we can sum­mon to the sur­face”.

This point was brought home when, in 2004, Gour­met looked at the grow­ing craze of Riedel wine glasses not­ing that what recept­acle is used to drink wine from really does have a massive influ­ence on how we per­ceive its taste and smell. This is mainly because,

Riedel and oth­er high-end glasses can make wine taste bet­ter. Because they’re pretty. Because they’re del­ic­ate. Because they’re expens­ive. Because you expect them to make the wine taste bet­ter.

Research­ers are now start­ing to look at this dir­ectly by run­ning exper­i­ments on how the haptic qual­it­ies (feel) of a drink­ing ves­sel affects our per­cep­tion of its con­tents.

Those who like to touch [high autotelics] are least influ­enced by touch in taste eval­u­ations. Indeed, in a taste test of the same min­er­al water from both a flimsy and a firm cup, it was low autotelics [those who don’t like to touch] who gave the most neg­at­ive eval­u­ations of the taste of the water in the flimsy cup.

The res­ults were sim­il­ar when par­ti­cipants were just told about the con­tain­ers in a writ­ten descrip­tion and did not actu­ally feel them: Low autotelics expressed a will­ing­ness to pay more for a firm bottle of water, while high autotelics did not.

So keep all this in mind if you’re a red wine fan when you next order fish: it’s now been shown that low-iron red wines are a per­fect com­ple­ment to some types of fish, so don’t let your pesky sub­con­scious get to the wine first.

As Lawrence Rosen­blum of Sens­ory Super­powers says, “you drink what you think”.