Why meeting planners should learn about cross-sensory perception

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We all know that our senses don't work in isolation, that what we see can affect what we taste (which may explain why green ketchup didn't take off, and why Coke's plan to help polar bears with a special edition of its regular Coke in white cans freaked out regular Coke drinkers, who insisted that it tasted like Diet Coke even though the formula was exactly the same). Retail stores have soundtracks designed specifically to slow you down so you shop longer.

But it wasn't until reading this article on cross-sensory perception in The Boston Globe last week that I realized just how much our senses cross over to affect each other. (Though it's not the same as synesthesia, which has always fascinated me, it has to be related.) A few examples from the article:

Research has found that "people rate potato chips as crisper and better-tasting when a louder crunch is played back over headphones as they eat. A study published this year showed that people thought a strawberry mousse tasted sweeter, more intense, and better when they ate it off a white plate rather than a black plate."

And while we know that decor and environmental factors can enhance (or detract from) a dining experience, that strong-smelling floral arrangement centerpiece may actually be making the food taste bad. As the article points out: "...we are now beginning to understand that these elements don’t just create atmosphere and associations — they can actually make food taste different. For example, several studies have found that adding red coloring can make drinks taste sweeter, allowing a company to reduce sugar content while turning color up a notch."

Also according to the article, a company called Condiment Junkie is finding ways to use sound to enhance experiences. For example, "The company has worked with Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England, run by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, to develop soundtracks to bring out specific flavors in the food, based on their finding that hearing certain sounds (high tones, tinkling pianos) make people perceive a bittersweet toffee as more sweet, while hearing low-pitched tones and trombones make the toffee taste more bitter."

Why meeting planners should care about all this? Well, for one thing, it's already spawned a conference of its own to share findings around cross-sensory perception. And it has obvious F&B implications, of course. Here's another: "And the new work may ultimately affect how the rest of us learn, as well. Shams’s group at UCLA has found that people learn a visual task better when it’s accompanied by sound, for instance — even when they are later tested using only vision."

But more importantly, just think of all the things we can do to enhance our learning environment if we can quantify other ways in which one sensory input also affects other senses in ways that enhance learning. It sounds like we're just beginning to untangle how all these sensory interactions mesh to enhance, detract from, amplify, or otherwise affect how we experience the world, and how we learn.

If anyone knows of good research in this area, please let me know. I'm deeply fascinated by the whole topic.

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