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 cooperative 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”.