The Hidden Senses of Taste and Smell
*Merle Fairhurst and Alisa Madrigin, for the AHRC Science in Culture Theme Large Grant, February 19th, 2015
Photo credit: Dorothy, AHRC
What does a digital lemon taste like? What must it be like to live without a sense of smell? Can food be aesthetic and how does this effect flavour perception? Is there an adequate vocabulary to describe our sense of smell? These questions and others were the focus of a one-day event which included a variety of activities including talks, artistic installations, demonstrations and interactive experiments. As part of the first national festival of the humanities (Being Human), the Rethinking the Senses team spread out over the Dana Centre, Science Museum in London to share thoughts and live science with the public about the Hidden Senses of Taste and Smell.
The event could not have been possible without the lively and invaluable contributions of both existing and new collaborators of the project. Adrian Cheok’s Mixed Reality lab demonstrated exciting equipment intended to create a richer virtual experience that goes beyond sight and sound to include digital taste and smell. Imagine waking up to the smell of bacon, coming not from breakfast being cooked downstairs but rather being emitted from the alarm set on your mobile device. By contrast, the Fifth Sense, a longstanding collaborator of the Rethinking the Senses Project, presented a “smell the difference” challenge to give true insight into lives without smell.
Two new friends of the project, Sarah Kathleen Page and Eleonore de Boneval created two distinct spaces in the Dana Centre in which individuals were confronted with powerful images related to our sense of smell; while Sarah had a wall of evocative photographs around the concept of anosmia, Eleonore’s installation “the sentimental sense” included visual triggers on a memory wall and a vertical scent garden – together, this installation challenged the public to draw on and reignite their own memories of smell. Visitors could then hear about (“Fragrant memories”, Jon Silas and Margot Crossman) and explore their own feelings about the smell and how we label smell with an interactive experiment as well as have an interactive discussion with philosophers from the team on the objectivity of smell. A truly hidden sense, our sense of smell seems so essential to our everyday lives and yet it is both under-researched and indeed only rarely written about (discounting Proust of course). Is this because we lack the language necessary to describe olfactory experiences? This is not the case for perfume where indeed an entire vocabulary has been established allowing for very specific classification and descriptions. Talks and demonstrations by Stephen Nelson and Dariush Alavi (Persolaise), two perfumers telling different accounts of the history of perfume, described this language and how we write about our sense of smell.
Is what you see what you eat? Or is what we taste really what we smell? A second theme for the day was that of the multisensory interactions that create our rich experience of the world. Real-life examples of multisensory perception are perhaps best and most commonly experienced each and every time we eat. While our taste machinery is somewhat limited in terms of the variety of flavours it allows us to perceive, in combination with our other senses, primarily smell, we are able to enjoy far more than the five basic tastes. The size and colour of the plate, our prior expectations of who made it, how and in what context; these and many other factors will tune our perception of flavour.
At the Hidden Senses event, this concept of multisensory flavour perception was discussed in a public lecture by Professor Charles Spence (“The Perfect Meal”), and a talk and demonstration by Ophelia Deroy (“The aesthetics of food plating”). These effects were then tested live with a new experiment from a three Michelin star Experimental research kitchen in which the so-called Kiki-Booba phenomenon was tested for food plating as well as its effect on flavour perception.
Highlighting the need for interdisciplinary study of the senses, the Rethinking the Senses team presented a host of interactive experiments in which both the psychology and philosophy behind the effects of Confused Skittles and Bamboozled Jelly Beans were described. The public could then create their own perfect meal with a sticker-plating activity to test the so-called odd number rule.
Data collected on the day from the many examples of live science will be posted on the Rethinking the Senses website. For more information about the experiments, the event or the project, please visit www.thesenses.ac.uk and sign up to the mailing list for details of future events.
The Hidden Senses activities organised by the Rethinking the Senses team are also featured in a video about the Being Human Festival 2014 which is available to watch here.