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The Multisensory Taste of Food

What writers and scientists know about taste perception.

Key points

  • Sights, sounds, and touch sensations associated with foods can all influence taste experiences.
  • Writers' descriptions of characters enjoying food may help scientists understand how senses influence each other.
  • The ways writers use vision, movement, hearing, and touch to evoke taste may suggest new sensory experiments for researchers.

Alarmed by my cholesterol numbers, I decided to give up butter. In a nearby health food store, I read labels until I found an olive oil spread that looked promising. The next morning, I peeled back the plastic cover and gasped. The spread's surface was bleached-bone white. Before I ever tasted the stuff, I knew that my olive oil spread was a failure.

My parents used to tell me that during WWII, when butter was scarce, the margarine that stores sold came with little packets of yellow dye. You had to mash the dye into the white fat before it looked anything like butter. People bought the margarine and mashed away, although turning the fat yellow didn’t change its taste—or did it? Taste emerges from receptors on people’s tongues, but taste is also an interpretation subject to influence from every other sense.

Psychologist Charles Spence and his colleagues at Oxford University study the ways that people’s sensory modalities influence one another, especially in flavor perception. It has long been known how greatly smell contributes to taste—not just by scientists but by anyone who has ever had a cold. In a recent review, Spence estimated that 70 to 95 percent of what most people experience as taste can be attributed to olfactory (smell) receptors (Spence 2019, 225).

It is less obvious how other sensory modalities affect taste, but experiments indicate that they do. Unsurprisingly, the temperature and texture of food in the mouth (“mouthfeel”) contribute to taste perceptions, but so can tactile details of a food’s presentation such as the roughness of a plate or the weight of a package (Spence 2019, 227). In support of my horror at the white olive oil spread, Spence cites over 200 studies indicating that a food or drink’s color can affect reported perceptions of its taste (Spence 2019, 228).

The sounds associated with unpacking, preparing, or eating food can also influence taste experiences. A stale cracker that is supposed to crunch but doesn’t may taste like disappointment. While smell and “mouthfeel” contribute to taste experiences through the extensive connections among the gustatory, olfactory, and somatosensory systems, the appearance and presentation of food may influence taste through higher-level communications by establishing expectations (Spence 2019, 231).

Spence’s work helps explain why fiction-writers appeal to so many senses when they invite readers to imagine flavors their characters are enjoying. In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, an unlikely pair of characters—a factory-owner and a Communist labor leader—sit side by side, “sipping coffee and crunching banana chips. Dislodging with their tongues the sodden yellow mulch that stuck to the roofs of their mouths” (Roy 1997, 280). Roy doesn’t tell readers how the banana chips taste. Instead, she describes their color and mouthfeel, not just their pulpy texture but the tongue movements needed to swallow them.

Readers vary in the ways they respond to stories, and not all of them may consciously imagine characters’ sensations, including taste. Those who do, however, may find themselves drawn into characters’ bodies, so that by sharing their sensations, they can imagine their emotions. If readers can imagine cleaning the roofs of their mouths with their tongues, they may sense the common physicality of these characters with opposing interests.

HannaTor/Shutterstock
Source: HannaTor/Shutterstock

If writers want readers to imagine flavors, the modalities of vision, touch, and movement can help. In another scene in Arundhati Roy’s novel, a cook (Kochu Maria) is icing a chocolate cake and finds she has frosting left over. Roy writes that “she tipped her head back and squeezed the leftover icing onto her tongue. Endless coils of chocolate toothpaste on a pink Kochu Maria tongue… When she finished, she ran her tongue over her teeth and then made a series of short smacking sounds with her tongue against her palate as though she’d just eaten something sour” (Roy 1997, 171).

In just three sentences, Roy describes Kochu Maria’s bodily position, the feel of the icing in her mouth, and the sound of smacking, all of which she perceives and which may encourage readers to imagine life in her body. Simultaneously, through the toothpaste metaphor, Roy offers motion and color that Kochu Maria can’t see: the icing spiraling onto her tongue; the contrast of brown against pink.

By blending aspects of touch perceived by the character with color and movement only a witness could see, Roy offers a complex taste experience some readers may find delectable—vicarious bliss for those worried about cholesterol. As in the banana chips scene, this description of indulgence enlists and blends readers’ senses to help humanize a character through physicality.

By following work such as Spence’s, writers may gain insight into how human sensory systems influence one another. At the same time, psychologists and neuroscientists may learn from rich descriptions like Roy’s, in which references to texture, color, and bodily movements help readers to imagine taste. Artistically, a great deal depends on writers’ sensory descriptions because in many cases, writers cue readers to imagine characters’ sensory perceptions in order to help readers imagine the characters' emotions. The ways that skilled writers use vision, movement, hearing, and touch to evoke taste may suggest new experiments for researchers learning how sensory systems interact.

References

Roy, Arundhati. (1997). The God of Small Things. London: 4th Estate-Harper Collins.

Spence, Charles. (2019). “Multisensory flavor perception: A cognitive neuroscience perspective.” In Multisensory Perception: From Laboratory to Clinic. Edited by K. Sathian and V. S. Ramachandran. Academic Press-Elsevier.

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