Saturday, October 6, 2012

Food and the Senses

This semester for my Masters in Liberal Arts, Gastronomy program at Boston University I am enrolled in a class entitled Food and the Senses. The course is an interdisciplinary look at the senses. We're looking at the senses physically - how do the senses work (like taste and smell receptors) as well as how do we perceive sensory experiences. We're also looking at food and the senses in a cultural context. How does sensory experiences translate from an individual experience to social phenomena?

We started with a science heavy look at just how the senses work. We had a biologist talk to us about how taste receptors on the tongue and olfactory receptors in the nose take in information and pass it up into the brain. We had a neurobiologist explain where this sensory information goes in the brain and how it gets processed. There are still a lot of unknowns in this area. Having not taken a real science course since high school, it was fascinating to relearn details of the brain and how amazingly it interprets all of the information inputs it is constantly receiving.

Now we're moving into each sense individually. The class readings and discussion look at both historical and contemporary research on the senses, as well as different cultural meanings and contexts. Each week we also have a lab experience to continue to understand the sensory experience with food. Our first lab had us smelling five different pieces of scented cloth and ranking them by the intensity of the smell. Our second lab had us start by closing our eyes and holding our noses. We then tasted three pairs of food items without knowing what we were trying. Each pair was two items similar in texture and flavor. The challenge was to first see what our experience was like having only touch and mouthfeel to inform the experience. Then the items were revealed to us and we tasted a second time (still no sight or smell). We were asked how did our experience change after we knew what each item was?

These are some of the questions we are considering - and  thought I would share my first written assignment to give you a 'taste' of a few questions I've been thinking about after the first few weeks of class. I'd love to hear your thoughts! The reference for the article is at the end, if you would like to look it up to read.

The article “Flavor and the Brain” by Dana Small defines flavor as “a perception that includes gustatory, oral-somatosensory, and retronasal olfactory signals that arise from the mouth as foods and beverages are consumed (Small, 2012).” Small discusses that “although the sights, sounds and smells of foods that occur just before, or in the absence of eating, can impact flavor perception, it is argued that these sensory signals exert their influence by creating expectations based upon prior associations  (Small, 2012).” The discussion touches on “top-down” influences including attention, expectations and beliefs and how they impact neural and perceptual responses (Small, 2012). For example, being told about the intensity of a flavor can impact the resulting response in the brain. In the context of her article, Small also talks about how vision influences flavor, similarly to how verbal labels and cues might create expectations about the sensory experience. These top-down mechanisms bias “the neural code towards expected experiences (Small 2012).”

After reading the article I began to think about how flavor is influenced by expectation, specifically in the context of dining out at restaurants. What information influences and shapes the diner’s expectations and how does this impact the diner’s perception of flavor? Is it influenced by expectations created before the dining experience as well as during the experience?

When information is readily available, how does this change the dining experience? If the diner is armed with a photographs and descriptions prior to eating will the flavor he experiences be different than if he had just ordered off the menu with no prior knowledge? There are numerous ways to get information before dining out. Information on restaurants is available on websites, on television, in magazines, in guidebooks, and in newspapers. Information ranges from a basic review of offerings all the way to photographs and reviews of individual dishes. How does this impact the diner’s sensory experience? Websites like Tasted Menu and smart phone apps like Nosh let users post reviews and photographs of individual menu items at restaurants. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram let users post real-time accounts of their dining experience.How does this information and visual representation shape the diner’s expectations? An interesting experiment would be to have a diner read about a dish and view photos ahead of time and ask them to describe the flavor, then compare it with the description from a diner with no prior knowledge of the dish.

Information on food is also presented through both food advertising and food television programming. There are numerous television programs that feature restaurant dishes, like Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. What impact does watching this type of program have on a viewer’s future dining experience? The viewer is watching participants in the show prepare the dish, eat, and describe their experience. The viewer is getting a visual (and sort-of auditory) play-by-play of the sensory experience of the host – smells, texture, and flavor – but without actually experiencing them. An interesting area for research would be how watching this type of programming causes responses in the brain while they are watching. Also, if the viewer dines at the restaurant featured in the show, how does this prior information impact their experience?

Areas for future study could look at the impact that this prior information has on shaping expectations and the resulting brain response and perception of flavor. From a marketing perspective, restaurants and food companies could understand how this type of information either positively or negatively impacts the diner’s experience.

Small, D. M. (2012). Flavor is in the brain. Physiology & Behavior. doi:doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.04.011


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