24 August 2011

Charles Spence interview Part 1

Professor Charles Spence is the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory based at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University. He is interested in how people perceive the world around them. In particular, how our brains manage to process the information from each of our different senses (such as smell, taste, sight, hearing, and touch) to form the extraordinarily rich multisensory experiences that fill our daily lives.

1.What was it that first peaked an interest for you in how our senses work?

A colleague who was living in a small flat where the sound on the TV was broken. He would use hifi to listen to his favourite programs. However, when sitting on the bed in the small flat, at the start of the movie, everything would sound fine once the theme tune had come on, but as soon as anyone started speaking there would be a sudden disconnect, the voices were coming from the loudspeakers on the side of the bed. The person could be seen from straight ahead (i,e a different direction). However, after a few seconds a very strange thing happened, the voice and lips would fuse again and it would seem like the person on screen really was making the speech sounds they were uttering.

It turns out that this broken bit of kit was actually giving rise to the ventriloquists dummy illusion. This goes on all the time at the cinema, and it provides and example of how our brains continuously try to bind the informations from the various senses.

I started my research on the senses 20 years ago looking at precisely this interaction between our eyes and ears. Over the intervening years I have slowly added extra senses to the list of ones we investigate.
In a way it is only natural that someone interested in the senses ends up studying food and drink, as they constitute perhaps our most multisensory of experiences

2.What do you think has the most profound effect on taste?

I think that what we see has a far more profound effect on what we "taste" than any of us realize. Many studies now show that you can completely change a person's perception of the taste/flavour of a food or drink simply by changing its colour.

In many ways we really do taste with our eyes
Sound too is very important if understood. In the case of drinks, we have conducted some fun research showing that people's perception of the carbonation in a drink comes as much from the ears as from what is going on in-mouth.

3.Is there a simple trick you can share with us to show how you can manipulate taste?

One of the one's i like is getting two glasses of tonic water. You then add half a teaspoon of salt to one of the two and ask people to predict which glass should now taste sweeter. The one without the salt right? Wrong. The addition of the salt actually interacts with the bitterness and hence you get a release of sweetness. Very counterintuitive, but a good example to illustrate how complex and interesting taste is.

Another example which helps to illustrate the notion of super additivity - our brain adding together two weakly effective stimuli in order to give rise to a more intense multi-sensory precept - comes from what happens when you chew a piece of mint gum until the mint flavour had just disappeared. Now roll it in some icing sugar and stick it back in your mouth. Miraculously the mint flavour should have returned, even though all you added was some odourless sugar!

4.How important can things like service and ambience be, on flavour perception?

I think this is hugely important, and once again often people don't realize and/or think about it enough. Everything from the brightness and colour of the lighting can influence how much people drink, how sweet they think it tastes and how much they are willing to pay for it. As soon as you start playing specific kinds of music, French vs German vs Italian say that can influence everything which kind of wine they order / purchase through to how ethnic the food or drink tastes.

We have just completed an experiment together with the fat duck development kitchen and a sonic design company in London, Condiment Junkie in which we gave people a bittersweet toffee and demonstrated that the strength of the bitter / sweet taste could be altered by the particular soundscape that people were hearing. We would love to try something similar in the cocktail sector.

5.Are there any simple everyday things that people can do in bars and restaurants to improve a customers experience?

Yes but where to begin. I am sure that there is a lot of interesting research to be done in terms of the glasses used to serve particular drinks in. We have, for example, just shown that people rate yoghurt as tasting better when it is served from a heavier rather than a lighter bowl. Could the same be true for cocktails.

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