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not only from the unified oral sensation

of taste and smell (both orthonasal and
retronasal), but also from the sound it
The multisensory makes, not to mention what it looks like.
The oral-somatosensory qualities of foods
are also very important; the texture,
perception of flavour temperature, and even the pain, as in the
case of eating chilli peppers, all contribute
to the overall multisensory flavour
Charles Spence on his mouth-watering research experience (or gestalt: Verhagen &
Engelen, 2006). The pleasure of food is
critically dependent on all these sensory
Eating and drinking are among ‘No animal can live without food. Let attributes being right, and so food can, for
life’s most pleasurable activities us then pursue the corollary of this: instance, be ruined simply by serving it at
and among the most multisensory namely, food is about the most the wrong temperature, or if it has an
as well. However, cognitive important influence in determining inappropriate colour.
neuroscientists have only recently the organization of the brain and the For the last 30 years or so,
come to realise that their insights, behavior that the brain organization psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists
derived from studies of the dictates.’ J.Z. Young (1968, p.21). have been investigating how our brains
multisensory integration of combine what they see, hear and feel in
auditory, visual and tactile stimuli, ‘Cooking is probably the most multi- order to generate the rich and varied
can be extended to help explain sensual art. I try to stimulate all the multisensory experiences that fill our
flavour perception. This approach is senses.’ (Ferran Adrià, El Bulli everyday lives (see Calvert et al., 2004, for
already starting to impact upon the restaurant, Spain) a review). Researchers have, for example,
design of foods, drinks and dining spent a lot of time trying to work out why
experiences in locations as diverse ognitive psychologists and it is that people perceive the voice of a
as the supermarket and Michelin-
starred restaurants. Psychology
and cognitive neuroscience can
C neuroscientists interested in the
topic of multisensory integration
have, until recently, largely kept away
ventriloquist as coming from the moving
lips of the dummy, and why people hear

help create novel flavours, taste from the study of flavour perception,
sensations and dining experiences preferring instead to focus on the
that can more effectively stimulate integration of auditory, visual and, to
the mind, and not just the mouth, of a lesser extent, tactile signals. However,
the consumer. the last few years have seen a rapid
growth of interest by researchers trying
to apply the insights uncovered in the
Do the same mechanisms underlie the psychophysics and neuroimaging

multisensory integration of flavour cues laboratory to the study of multisensory

as modulate other combinations of flavour perception (Stevenson, 2009;
sensory stimuli? Verhagen & Engelen, 2006).
Do smell–taste confusions reflect a kind As the above quote from J.Z. Young
of synaesthesia common to us all? makes clear, food acquisition has likely
played a critical role in shaping brain
development throughout the course of
human evolution. Indeed, food is one

Calvert, G.A., Spence, C. & Stein, B.E.

(Eds.) (2004). The handbook of of the most effective stimuli in terms
multisensory processes. Cambridge, of modulating brain activity in hungry
MA: MIT Press. participants; with the sight and smell of
Stevenson, R.J. (2009). The psychology of appetising food leading to a 24 per cent The tight coupling between taste and smell
flavour. Oxford: Oxford University
Press. increase in whole-brain metabolism in one means that terms such as ‘a sweet smell’ PET study (see Wang et al., 2004). reflect much more than a merely
Our enjoyment of food and drink comes metaphorical use of language

Alais, D. & Burr, D. (2004). The the perceived ethnicity, acceptability, the senses. Nature Neuroscience, 3, 8, 162–169.
ventriloquist effect results from and selection of foods. Appetite, 22, 431–432. Gal, D., Wheeler, S.C. & Shiv, B. (2007).
near-optimal bimodal integration. 11–24. de Araujo, I.E.T., Rolls, E.T., Kringelbach, Cross-modal influences on gustatory
Current Biology, 14, 257–262. Blumenthal, H. (2008). The big Fat Duck M.L. et al. (2003). Taste–olfactory perception. Manuscript submitted.
Auvray, M. & Spence, C. (2008). The cookbook. London: Bloomsbury. convergence, and the representation Gallace, A., Boschin, E. & Spence, C.
multisensory perception of flavor. Calvert, G.A., Spence, C. & Stein, B.E. of the pleasantness of flavour, in the (submitted). On the taste of ‘Bouba’
Consciousness and Cognition, 17, (Eds.) (2004). The handbook of human brain. European Journal of and ‘Kiki’: An exploration of
1016–1031. multisensory processes. Cambridge, Neuroscience, 18, 2059–2068. word–food associations in
Bell, R., Meiselam, H.L., Pierson, B.J. & MA: MIT Press. Ernst, M.O. & Bülthoff, H.H. (2004). neurologically normal participants.
Reeve, W.G. (1994). Effects of adding Dalton, P., Doolittle, N., Nagata, H. & Merging the senses into a robust Cognitive Neuroscience.
an Italian theme to a restaurant on Breslin, P.A.S. (2000). The merging of percept. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Green, D.M. & Butts, J.S. (1945). Factors

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multisensory flavour perception

better when they put their glasses Stevenson & Tomiczek, 2007). What
on. By studying such cross-modal is clear it that the extremely tight
illusions in the laboratory, coupling between the senses of taste
scientists have started to uncover and smell means that terms such as
some of the fundamental rules ‘a sweet smell’ reflect much more than
governing multisensory perception. a merely metaphorical use of language
For example, they have discovered (Stevenson & Boakes, 2004).
that people’s perception is typically For example, placing a drop of
dominated by what they see (as in sucrose on the tongue (be it at a sub-
the case of the ventriloquist’s or supra-threshold level) leads to a
dummy: Alais & Burr, 2004). dramatic increase in the ability to
There is now a growing body detect the presence of a congruent
of empirical evidence to show that odorant such as benzaldehyde (which
Bayesian decision theory, has an almond-like odour familiar to
incorporating the principle of those who like Bakewell tart; Dalton
maximum likelihood estimation, et al., 2000). Interestingly, however,
does a remarkably good job of this particular multisensory effect
predicting our perceptual appears to be culture-/experience-
experiences under conditions of Bacon-and-egg ice-cream: the bacon is specific: While Europeans and North
intersensory conflict (see Ernst & ‘ventriloquised’ towards the crispy bread Americans, for whom the combination
Bülthoff, 2004, for a review). of almond and sugar is very common
Meanwhile, neurophysiologists have (in marzipan, for example), are able to
shown that individually weakly effective corner shop (e.g. Gallace et al., submitted; integrate this particular combination of
(i.e. near-threshold) stimuli sometimes Levitan et al., 2008; Shankar et al., 2009; stimuli, they show no such multisensory
combine in a superadditive manner, giving Yeomans et al., 2008). enhancement effect when an almond
rise to multisensory experiences that are odour is paired with a salty taste
more intense, and richer, than would be (monosodium glutamate). By contrast,
predicted by the simple linear combination Taking the confusion out of fusion the Japanese, for whom almond odor is
of their individual parts (Stein & Meredith, Flavour perception is, however, not only associated with salty tastes in pickled
1993; Stein & Stanford, 2008). Similar of interest to psychologists and cognitive condiments, typically show the reverse
superadditive brain responses have now neuroscientists but also to an increasing effect. That is, they exhibit enhanced
been documented in the human number of philosophers (e.g. Smith, responding to the combination of almond
orbitofrontal cortex (the part of the 2007), given the conceptual uncertainty and salt, but not to almond and sugar.
brain that controls our perception of the surrounding how exactly we should Results such as these suggest that our
pleasantness and reward value of food) define flavour (Spence et al., 2010). brains learn to combine just those tastes
in response to congruent combinations Should flavour be considered as a and smells (i.e. flavours) that commonly
of olfactory, gustatory and visual stimuli separate sensory modality, like vision and co-occur in the foods we eat (Blumenthal,
(de Araujo et al., 2003). hearing? Or is it instead more appropriate 2008; Spence, in press). In fact, we
The latest evidence now shows that to consider flavour as a kind of perceptual apparently start learning our responses to
many of the same rules of multisensory system (Auvray & Spence, 2008; flavours before we have even left the
integration/perception (such as sensory Stevenson, 2009)? One thing is certain, womb (Schaal et al., 2000).
dominance and superadditivity) also help though, we all find it extremely difficult
to explain why food and drink taste the to distinguish between tastes and smells.
way they do, and why what tastes nice to Think only of how hard it is to taste food The ventriloquist in your mouth
one person may taste awful to another. when your nose is blocked; under such While many people might think that the
While much of the research in this area conditions, it is, of course, only your ventriloquism illusion only occurs in the
requires the use of computer-controlled sense of smell that is actually impaired. cinema or when watching a ventriloquist’s
olfactometers and gustometers, it is Some researchers have argued that the dummy, the latest evidence suggests that
important to note that fundamental studies ubiquitous nature of such taste–smell a similar effect also occurs in the mouth.
on flavour perception can be carried out confusions may reflect a form of Ventriloquism may help explain why it is
with nothing more complex than a tub of synaesthesia that is common to us all that we always seem to perceive flavours
ice-cream or a packet of sweets from the (Auvray & Spence, 2008; Rozin, 1982; in the mouth (rather than in the nose,

affecting acceptability of meals Morrot, G., Brochet, F. & Dubourdieu, D. Parr, W.V., White, K.G., & Heatherbell, D. Chemical Senses, 25, 729–737.
served in the air. Journal of the (2001). The color of odors. Brain and (2003). The nose knows: Influence of Shankar, M.U., Levitan, C.A., Prescott, J.,
American Dietetic Association, 21, Language, 79, 309–320. colour on perception of wine aroma. & Spence, C. (2009). The influence of
415–419. North, A. & Hargreaves, D. (2008). The Journal of Wine Research, 14, 79–101. color and label information on flavor
Levitan, C., Zampini, M., Li, R. & Spence, social and applied psychology of music. Rozin, P. (1982). ‘Taste–smell confusions’ perception. Chemosensory Perception,
C. (2008). Assessing the role of color Oxford: Oxford University Press. and the duality of the olfactory sense. 2, 53–58.
cues and people’s beliefs about Oberfeld, D., Hecht, H., Allendorf, U. & Perception & Psychophysics, 31, Shankar, M.U., Levitan, C. & Spence, C.
color-flavor associations on the Wickelmaier, F. (2009). Ambient 397–401. (2010). Grape expectations: The role
discrimination of the flavor of sugar- lighting modifies the flavor of wine. Schaal, B., Marlier, L. & Soussignan, R. of cognitive influences in color–flavor
coated chocolates. Chemical Senses, Journal of Sensory Studies, 24, (2000). Human foetuses learn odours interactions Consciousness &
33, 415–423. 797–832. from their pregnant mother’s diet. Cognition, 19, 380–390.

read discuss contribute at 721

multisensory flavour perception

where the majority of flavour perception tasting

originates): olfactory and gustatory significantly
stimuli, which are difficult to localise, are crisper (and
perceived as emanating from the mouth fresher) if the
because they are referred to the highly overall sound level
localisable tactile sensations associated was increased, or
with mastication. The ventriloquism if just the high-
illusion may also play a crucial role in frequency Visual cues can have a profound effect on both the sensory-
one of the classic dishes on the tasting components of the discriminative and hedonic aspects of multisensory flavour
menu at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant crisp-biting sound perception
in Bray, The Fat Duck. When bacon-and- were boosted.
egg ice-cream was first created, it was People’s perception
only moderately pleasant; the flavours did of the carbonation of a beverage served in unable to modulate people’s perception
not appear to stand out from one another. a cup is also modulated by what they hear of saltiness using food colouring. The
The breakthrough came when a piece of (Spence & Shankar, 2010). Companies problem here is that salty foods come in
crispy fried bread was added to the plate. such as Unilever, Proctor & Gamble and all manner of colours, and hence there is
While the bread does not, in-and-of-itself, Nestlé have now started to use this no natural colour–taste association on
impart much flavour to the dish, its psychologically inspired technique in- which to build.
addition brought the dish alive, seemingly house when developing their new dry- Wine is particularly interesting from
helping to separate the bacon and egg food products. the point of view of flavour research
flavours. It appears as though the bacon because it allows one to look at the effects
is ‘ventriloquised’ towards, and hence of expertise. In what is perhaps the most
becomes perceptually localised within, Grape expectations famous study in this area, 54 students
the crispy bread, while the eggy flavour Many studies published over the last enrolled on a university oenology course
stays behind in the more texturally 75 years have shown that visual cues in Bordeaux were given two glasses of
appropriate soft ice-cream. (especially those concerned with a food wine to sniff, one white, the other red
or drink’s colour) can have a profound (Morrot et al., 2001); They had to indicate
effect on both the sensory-discriminative which of the wines presented a range of
Sound bites and hedonic aspects of multisensory characteristics most intensely. Descriptors
Try eating a crisp (or potato chip) flavour perception (Spence et al., 2010). such as lemon, honey and straw were
without making a noise. It’s simply So, for example, people find it particularly chosen for the white wine aroma, and
impossible! Do such food-related sounds difficult to correctly identify fruit- another set of terms, such as prune,
exert any influence on our perception? flavoured drinks that have been coloured chocolate, tobacco, etc. to describe the red
Experiments conducted here at the incongruently, as when an orange- wine. A week later, the students were given
Crossmodal Research Laboratory in flavoured drink is artificially coloured two further glasses of wine (one white, the
Oxford have demonstrated that food- green. Similarly, many people will other red, just as before). This time,
eating sounds contribute to the reportedly run to the bathroom to be ill if however, what looked like red wine was
perception of crispness and freshness in they find out that the steak that they have actually a white wine that had been
foods such as crisps, biscuits, breakfast been eating is actually coloured blue. artificially coloured red. The budding
cereals and vegetables (Zampini & More seriously, multisensory research on oenologists – who hadn’t been made aware
Spence, 2004). The participants in our flavour may turn out to have important of the deception – all chose the red wine
study (for which we were awarded the health implications, given that, for odor descriptors when evaluating the
2008 IG Nobel prize for nutrition) had example, beverages can be made to taste inappropriately coloured white wine.
to bite into 180 potato chips and rate as much as 11 per cent sweeter simply When it comes to wine, people appear to
each one on its perceived crispness and by adding the appropriate amount of red smell what they see!
freshness. Pringles were ideal for this food colouring. Colours associated with Professional wine tasters and wine
research because they are all more-or-less the ripening of fruits are particularly makers also fall prey to this visual
identical in size, shape and consistency. effective in modulating perceived dominance effect (see Parr et al., 2003).
The crisp-biting sounds were picked up sweetness, while foods and drinks with If anything, they appear to be even more
by microphone, modified and then a green hue (i.e. associated with unripe susceptible to such cross-modal effects
immediately played back over fruits) are often judged to be sourer. As than social drinkers. This is presumably
headphones. The crisps were rated as yet, however, researchers have been because wine experts’ expectations

Smith, B.C. (Ed.) (2007). Questions of perception. Oxford: Blackwell. Stein, B.E. & Meredith, M.A. (1993). The The handbook of multisensory
taste: The philosophy of wine. Oxford: Spence, C., Levitan, C., Shankar, M.U. & merging of the senses. Cambridge, processing (pp.69–83). Cambridge,
Oxford University Press. Zampini, M. (2010). Does food color MA: MIT Press. MA: MIT Press.
Spence, C. (2010). The colour of wine – influence taste and flavor perception Stein, B.E. & Stanford, T.R. (2008). Stevenson, R.J. & Tomiczek, C. (2007).
Part 1. The World of Fine Wine, 28, in humans? Chemosensory Multisensory integration. Nature Olfactory-induced synesthesias.
122–129. Perception, 3, 68–84. Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 255–267. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 294–309.
Spence, C. (in press). Multisensory Spence, C. & Shankar, M.U. (2010). The Stevenson, R.J. (2009). The psychology of Verhagen, J.V. & Engelen, L. (2006). The
integration & the psychophysics of influence of auditory cues on the flavour. Oxford: OUP. neurocognitive bases of human
flavour perception. In J. Chen & L. perception of, and responses to, food Stevenson, R.J. & Boakes, R.A. (2004). multimodal food perception.
Engelen (Eds.) Food oral processing: and drink. Journal of Sensory Studies, Sweet and sour smells. In G.A. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral
Fundamentals of eating and sensory 25, 406–430. Calvert, C. Spence & B.E. Stein (Eds.) Reviews, 30, 613–650.

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multisensory flavour perception

concerning the taste, aroma and flavour we consume them (Bell et al., 1994; see maximum price that they were willing to
characteristics that are likely to be North & Hargreaves, 2008; Spence & pay was also nearly 50 per cent higher for
associated with a particular colour, and/or Shankar, 2010, for reviews). But could wine tasted under red lighting than when
by any other visual appearance cues environmental cues also influence the the same wine was evaluated under green
associated with the wine, are that much flavour and hedonic qualities of food and or white lighting. Follow-up experiments
stronger than in the non-expert (Shankar drink? The latest research suggests that revealed that blue and green room lighting
et al., 2010; Spence, 2010). they can. made wines taste spicier and fruitier, while
Many fast-moving consumer goods In one study, Heston Blumenthal and a Riesling was rated as tasting nearly 50
companies have already started to play I demonstrated that people rate bacon-and- per cent sweeter under red lighting than
with the mapping between food colour egg ice-cream as tasting significantly more under blue or white lighting.
and flavour. Think only of green tomato bacony when listening to the sound of In another recent study, Gal et al.
ketchup, or the recently introduced Fruity sizzling bacon than to a farmyard of (2007) demonstrated that the brightness of
Smarties or Confused Skittles, where the clucking chickens. In a second experiment, the ambient lighting can also affect people’s
colours and flavours of the individual people rated oysters eaten while listening consumption of coffee. People who like
candies have been deliberately mixed up. to the ‘sound of the sea’ (i.e. the sound of strong coffee were found to drink more of
Similarly, some of the chefs that I work seagulls squawking and waves crashing the stuff under bright lighting than under
with, such as Heston Blumenthal, have gently on the beach) as tasting significantly dim lighting, whereas the reverse was true
also started to play with their diners’ more pleasant than oysters eaten while for those who preferred their coffee weak.
expectations through dishes such as the listening to the farmyard noises. Taken Taken together, these results therefore
‘beetroot and orange jelly’ dish. When the together, these results (Spence & Shankar, demonstrate that both the intensity and
waiter brings this dish to the table they 2010) highlight just how dramatically colour of the ambient lighting can affect
will recommend that the diner should start environmental sounds can influence (or people’s perception of, liking for, and even
with the beetroot. People naturally go bias) people’s perception of food. their consumption of, drinks such as wine
straight for the purple-coloured jelly. These findings led directly to the and coffee. Our perception of flavour
However, beetroots turn orange on introduction of the ‘Sound of the Sea’ dish involves not only the multisensory
cooking, while Heston uses blood oranges at The Fat Duck. Diners are presented with integration of all of the available cues in
that naturally have that dark purple colour. a plate of food that is reminiscent of a the food itself, but can also be influenced
beach (with foam, seaweed, and sand all by the environment in which we happen
visible on the plate). The dish also comes to eat and drink (North & Hargreaves,
Environmental contributions with a mini iPod hidden inside a sea-shell, 2008; Spence & Shankar, 2010).
Thus far, I have focused on the with the earphones poking out. Diners are
contributions to multisensory flavour encouraged to insert the headphones
perception of the various sensory cues – (whereupon they hear the ‘Sounds of the Conclusions
gustatory, olfactory, oral-somatosensory, Sea’ soundtrack) before starting to eat. The The last few years have seen many
auditory and visual – that are intrinsic to dish is currently the signature dish on the important advances in our understanding
food and drink. However, the packaging tasting menu. Wearing headphones also of the multisensory perception of flavour
in which a food is presented, the has the advantage that is focuses the at both the psychological and neural
name/label it is given (Gallace et al., diners’ attention on the food itself. levels (see Stevenson, 2009; Verhagen &
submitted; Shankar et al., 2009; Yeomans Elsewhere, Oberfeld et al. (2009) have Engelen, 2006, for reviews). Cognitive
et al., 2008), and even the environment in shown that the ambient lighting can also neuroscientists have uncovered many key
which it is served, play an equally affect people’s perception of the flavour, rules (such as sensory dominance and
important role in modulating our taste and market value of wine. They superadditivity) used by the human brain
perception of, and responses to, food and changed the colour of the ambient lighting in order to combine the different sensory
drink (Spence & Shankar, 2010). When, at a winery on the Rhine from white to signals when we eat and drink. It should
after all, was the last time you enjoyed blue, red, or green, while 200 wine buyers come as no surprise then to learn that
airplane food (see Green & Butts, 1945)? rated Riesling (white) wines served in an chefs and other food producers are now
Everything from the red-and-white opaque black glass (to ensure that the starting to prepare dishes that more
checked tablecloth in a Mediterranean room colour did not impact on the colour effectively stimulate the senses of the
restaurant through to the colour of the of the wine itself). The customers liked the customer/consumer, because they have
lighting and the background music all wine significantly more when it was tasted been designed on the basis of these
affect both the foods and drinks we under blue and red lighting than under recently discovered rules of multisensory
choose to order and how much/quickly green or white lighting. What is more, the flavour perception (see Blumenthal,
2008). The hope is that psychological
insights can be harnessed in order to
make food healthier (by reducing sugar,
Wang, G-J., Volkow, N.D., Telang, F. et Young, J.Z. (1968). Influence of the
fat, salt, etc.) while not sacrificing flavour.
al. (2004). Exposure to appetitive mouth on the evolution of the brain.
food stimuli markedly activates the In P. Person (Ed.) Biology of the
human brain. NeuroImage, 212, mouth. Washington, DC: American
1790–1797. Association for the Advancement of Charles Spence
Yeomans, M., Chambers, L., Science. is head of the Crossmodal
Blumenthal, H. & Blake, A. (2008). Zampini, M. & Spence, C. (2004). The Research Laboratory at the
The role of expectancy in sensory role of auditory cues in modulating Department of Experimental
and hedonic evaluation: The case of the perceived crispness and
Psychology, Oxford University
smoked salmon ice-cream. Food staleness of potato chips. Journal of
Quality and Preference, 19, 565–573. Sensory Science, 19, 347–363.

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