The Secret Link Between Our Senses
If you had to give up one of your five senses, which would it be and why?
It’s a question many of us have been asked when “breaking the ice” in group situations, but have you ever paused to consider the implications? Given the familiar line-up of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, I often choose hearing, not thinking much beyond the fact I’d still get to enjoy stunning photographs, good food, sweet flowers and warm hugs. Yet, no sense is an island and I failed to realize what impact my other senses would face without the ability to hear.
Sound and music are powerful tools that work in tandem with our senses to heighten experiences and trigger memories. While researchers and scientists are still conducting studies to find out the full implications of how senses are wired, I dived into some interesting tidbits that may surprise you – full resources at the bottom of the post for your perusing pleasure.
Even when sound is irrelevant to the task, it influences the way we see/perform in the world. This can be seen across numerous studies which looked at how hearing can alter visual perception.
- In one study in particular, researchers were able to find that reaction time increased when a sound was heard. Participants were able to act more quickly in the right way, even if an irrelevant sound was present.
- Another interesting tidbit has to do with a study where different music volumes were played while people drove a car, only to have their driving interrupted so their reaction time could be measured. All participants responded more quickly when the music played at a level that was comfortable to them than when played higher or lower than that threshold.
- These types of findings can spill over into the sports world too. One study measured heart rate, affective responses and reaction times of athletes. It found that playing faster music put the athletes in a more aroused state, which could possibly improve performance. Their recommendation was that high-energy music played during a warm-up could bring athletes into a better performance state. Now you know that uptempo music at sporting events isn’t just to get the crowd going wild!
A tangible example of this idea involves the produce aisle “rainstorm” in the local supermarket. Even though the mist is manufactured, you perceive the produce as being more natural and fresh when it’s paired with the crack of thunder.
Sound can produce feeling sensations even when no touch is present.
An example is hearing the buzz of a mosquito as it flies near – our skin instantly prickles. A phenomena that happens when the frequency of the sound matches the frequency of the vibration on your skin.
Studies have shown cross-modal correspondence between smell and sound as well as new studies reveal that what you perceive as an odor can be altered by the noise you are hearing at the time. Our Chief Engineer and Guru, Dennis Wall, wrote about his personal experience with the interaction between sound and smell.
An example is seen when participants in a study are asked to match a smell of a wine to its appropriate musical instrument or pitch. There were many consistencies, such as piano being paired with fruity, less complex scents and brass being paired with muskier, unpleasant scents.
Sound affects both perception of freshness and palatability. It can also influence perception of crunchiness, strength of sweetness and bitterness, or flavor enjoyment as a whole. Many studies have been done and continue to be done on exploring this forgotten “flavor sense” of sound.
- House of Wolf, an experimental restaurant in London, collaborated with an artist to create a “sonic cake pop”. After ordering the dish, the patron would be given a chocolate-covered toffee treat and a phone number to dial. On the phone, they were given the option to select “one” for a sweet experience (high-pitch tones) or “two” for a bitter one (low-pitch tones). The restaurant recounts that there was a 5-10% change in taste due to the soundscapes.
- In a study on beverages, carbonated drinks were given better ratings when the sound of bubbles popping became louder and more frequent.
- Background music can also play a role in how you experience dining out. What’s the best way to enjoy your food? Anything but no music – that’s when diners rated the experience the worst. With quiet classical music and a dash of background noise that was heard at a comfortable volume, people enjoyed their meals most. Anything outside of that was rated as not good food.
- Our Founder and Lead Composer, Joel Beckerman, wrote an article about sound’s powerful influence on our perception of food and dining.
An example of how the specific tone and instrumentation of music affects your palette is British Airways and their “Sound Bite” menu offered on select flights. By pairing a curated playlist and specially selected food, flyers could experience how their tastebuds reacted to different flavors by enhancing sweetness for example, while listening to music. You can experience this yourself if you have coffee or chocolate handy! Give a listen to the video below and see what you think (or taste).
As multi-sensory scenarios redefine the norm for what people expect in retail, spaces and more, knowing how the senses interact can heighten user engagement and enhance overall love of the brand or network. Now that you know all the implications of sensory interaction, which sense would you choose to give up? How might you shape your own environment to create ideal sensory experiences?
Kristen Lueck is Strategist, Culture and Innovation at Man Made Music. Talk to her on Twitter @former_case and let her know which sense you would give up.
McDonald JJ, Teder-Salejarvi WA, Hillyard SA; Involuntary orienting to sound improves visual perception. Nature. 2000:407:906-908
Shams L, Kim R. Crossmodal influences on visual perception. Physics of Life Reviews (2010), doi:10.1016/j.plrev.2010.04.006
Turner ML, Fernandez JE, Nelson K. The effect of music amplitude on the reaction to unexpected visual events. J Gen Psychol. 1996 Jan;123(1):51-62
Bishop, Daniel T. , and Costas I Karageorghis. Effects of Musically-Induced Emotions on Choice Reaction Time Performance. The Sport Psychologist 23, no. 1 (March 2009): 59-76
Sound enhances touch perception, Tony Ro et al., Experimental Brain Research Volume 195, Number 1, 135-143, DOI: 10.1007/s00221-009-1759-8
A.T. Woods, E. Poliakoff, D.M. Lloyd, J. Kuenzel, R. Hodson, H. Gonda, J. Batchelor, G.B. Dijksterhuis, A. Thomas. Effect of background noise on food perceptionFood Quality and Preference, Volume 22, Issue 1, January 2011, Pages 42-47
Crisinel AS, Spence C. As bitter as a trombone: synesthetic correspondences in nonsynesthetes between tastes/flavors and musical notes. Atten Percept Psychophys. 2010 Oct;72(7):1994-2002. doi: 10.3758/APP.72.7.1994. PubMed PMID: 20952795
Novak, C., La Lopa, J., & Novak, R. (2010). Effects of Sound Pressure Levels and Sensitivity to Noise on Mood and Behavioral Intent in a Controlled Fine Dining Restaurant Environment Journal of Culinary Science & Technology, 8(4), 191-218 DOI: 10.1080/15428052.2010.535756