Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Why are there so many fish restaurants by the sea?
Think about that for a second and you’ll soon feel your knee-jerk response quickly melting away into absurdity. If fish restaurants were by the sea because they’re closer to the source of the fish, then why aren’t cattle fields lined with steak restaurants and ice cream shops?
The truth is we feel like eating seafood when we’re by the sea, having spent the day primed by its sounds, sights and smells, and so the market responds.
Context is everything. Our perception of reality is always relative, depending on the experiential frame in which we find ourselves in that particular moment.
Heston Blumenthal famously deploys this insight at The Fat Duck, with his “Sound of the Sea” dish - an elaborate seafood dish served up with earphones emerging from a conch shell. Guests are encouraged to listen to the sound of the ocean as they tuck in.
It’s consistently one of his most memorable and popular dishes and it was even proven in a controlled experiment with Oxford University that it made his oysters taste 'better'.
The sensory scientist involved in that study, Professor Charles Spence specialises in 'Cross-Modal' research - the science of how our senses interact; far from being discrete systems.
He calls our sense of hearing “The Forgotten Flavour Sense”, for how much aural stimuli plays into our perceptions of taste.
The truth is our ears (like most of our senses) are way more powerful than we think.
BLIND AS A BAT
Could you believe that humans can echolocate?
Real life "Batman", Daniel Kish, blind since he was 18 months old, manages to navigate cities, ride bikes, and even climb mountains by interpreting his environment through clicking his tongue. In blind people, the brain areas typically designated to our sense of sight can be co-opted by other senses.
With practice, this can seem like an extraordinary superpower.
But even sighted people can “hear" three-dimensional shapes and space, and interpret textures based on reflected sounds. In fact we need very little sound to perceive spaces. And we get better at it if we chose to hone our listening skills. Lawrence D. Rosenblum explores this in his extraordinary book See What I'm Saying.
Our sense of hearing also reveals the power of our so-called “intuition”. Nobel Prize winning Behavioural Economist Daniel Kahneman researched the intriguing idea of “Expert Intuition” - those inexplicable judgement calls that seem to reveal some kind of ‘Sixth Sense”.
In his seminal book Thinking, Fast & Slow he gives the example of an experienced fire fighter. Tackling a seemingly everyday kitchen fire, the firefighter suddenly felt that something was wrong, without really knowing why, and signalled to his team to immediately evacuate. Moments later the building had inexplicably collapsed. Had he somehow sensed the future?
The answer is less magical, but no less fascinating.
Kahneman showed us how our brain operates in two modes: System 1 versus System 2.
SYSTEM 1 is fast, intuitive, effortless, unconscious thinking. Examples of effortless 'System 1' thinking would be solving 1+1 = 2, or speaking in your native language.
SYSTEM 2 is slow, effortful, conscious, rational. Imagine solving 329 x 187 or when you speak a foreign in language. It's exhausting and you're very aware of your brain 'working'.
Humans have evolved to shift into energy-saving, intuitive System 1 as quickly, and as often as possible. In short - “We think much less than we think we think”. We’re on autopilot 90% of the time, adapted to interpreting our situation to make the-most-likely-to-be-correct decision, as quickly as possible.
Speed is prioritised over correctness, which makes sense - there was no evolutionary prize for the cave man who heard a rumble in the jungle and decided to stick around to see if it was actually just a curious aural illusion.
WHAT FIRES TOGETHER WIRES TOGETHER
To achieve this, our brain is constantly learning by association - what ‘fires together wires together’. Red is sweet. Green is sour. Darkness is scary.
White wine coloured red will reliably taste of 'red' things like “refreshing redcurrant and raspberries” to unsuspecting tasters (see The Art of Re-Emergence: Part 1 - Gorillas & Naked Emperors - an exploration of the sense of sight).
On refection, the experienced fire-fighter realised he’d felt the fire was hotter than he’d expect. But also that the fire was quieter than normal. Something indeed wasn’t right. The source of the fire was not in the kitchen where they thought it was, but below in the basement. His team were in great danger and in completely the wrong place to bring the fire under control.
What Kahneman showed was that intuition is nothing more than recognition. That situation had provided a cue. That cue provided access to information stored in the brain, and that information provided the answer. This all happened rapidly, intuitively, in System 1, before he was consciously aware of it, which is why it seemed like seeing into the future.
In fact we all display feats of 'expert intuition' everyday - it's simply how the brain works, and it only seems less magical because it's so common. Examples are knowing you were the subject of the previous conversation the second you enter the room, or knowing that someone is cross with you within the first syllable of a phone conversation.
Our powerful brains are constantly responding to and interpreting stimuli below the threshold of conscious awareness, which in turn shapes our thoughts, feelings and emotions.
TUNING IN: SENSORY SELF-DISCOVERY
So what’s the #SensorySelfDiscovery take on these insights? How can we hack our sensory perception for better experiences as we step back out into a sometimes dissatisfying, tiring world of sensory overload?
The answer is to become conscious of curating ‘soundscapes’. Far from being a nice 'add-on', our sound environment is a powerful perceptual frame.
The incessant background noise of a plane suppresses our ability to taste salty and sweet flavours by as much as 30%. It’s well know that airlines add extra salt and sugar to enhance taste in these suboptimal conditions. (Also exacerbated by dry air and the less than ideal logistical cooking situation).
Meanwhile, sour, bitter, umami and spiciness are less affected. Reach for foods with those flavours - it’s not surprising that umami rich tomato juice is always an airline staple.
A pair of comfortable noise cancelling headphones will transform your flying experience. Not just for enjoying music and movies at a more ear-safe volume, but for avoiding some of the fatigue associated with travel that comes from the unpleasant aural environment; screaming children, tannoy announcements echoing around a hard, cavernous building. Why not switch the soundtrack to a rolling ocean? (See my recommended playlists below).
Other times it’s about adding in aural stimuli rather than taking it away. Charles Spence’s research shows that high-pitched sounds can enhance our taste perceptions of sweetness, while low pitched sounds enhance our taste perceptions of bitterness. (Spence et al. 2010).
Try it yourself with chocolate or coffee.
Mood and theme also has a measurable effect. One study showed that consumers were more likely to purchase German wine, when German music was playing, or French wine when French wine was playing, despite reportedly being unaware of the music, when questioned later. (North et al. 1997).
Likewise when wine tasting, the attributes of the music being played will amplify those attributes in the wine. "Powerful and heavy, subtle and refined, zingy and refreshing, mellow and soft (North et al. 1997).
Heston's famous Bacon & Egg ice cream tasted more bacon-y with the sound of sizzling bacon, and more egg-y with the clucking sound of chicks. (Spence et al. 2010).
So the question is - what type of experience do you want to have? Because the soundscape you curate will have an impact more powerful than we might expect.
Here are my top soundscapes for life-enhanced experiences:
SMOOTH, MELLOW & ELEGANT WINE TASTING
A wine tasting playlist to enhance your tasting experience:
ENERGISING FEMALE MOOD
"Bacchus Bitches" playlist created for a grape-stomping evening enjoying female-made wines for International Women's Day.
I personally find the tempo and style is just right for getting into a focused zone. I started listening to this album when studying for my GCSE's and have returned to it ever since when I really need to get in "the zone".
Consecutive Starsailor Album's Love is Here followed by Silence Is Easy
ESCAPISM FROM UNWANTED SENSORY STIMULI
Drowning out background noise - particularly “Gentle Thunder Storm”
Feel like you're driving in Italy with an Italian radio station on. Perfect for creative pursuits, and drinking Italian Vino!
ABOUT THIS SERIES
SENSORY SELF DISCOVERY: THE ART OF RE-EMERGENCE
Sensory deprivation has become the norm these last few months. The sensory overload of modern life was abruptly switched off, for better or worse.
Our realities became insular, much of it experienced through a screen, physical touch was limited, mealtimes became repetitive and adventure was strictly off the cards. Instead, our dreams become more vivid, as we dealt with a collective trauma.
Yet, as we start to reemerge, just 9% of us would like life to resume to normality. We’ve glimpsed something better. This period of enforced reflection and slowing down has created a shift - we all feel it. No-one wants to return to business as usual.
The experiential exchange rate has been reset. What we once took for granted is novel once more.
As the world beckons us out again, into the world of restaurants, bars, travel and tourism that so desperately need our participation ... how we can hold onto this newly re-valued currency of experience?
In this short series I’ll be shedding light on each of our sensory ‘inputs’.
As we open up our senses to new physical experiences once again, new sights, smells, tastes, sounds, sensations, is there a way we can do it… better?
This is at the heart of my philosophy of ‘sensory self discovery’ - the notion that by better understanding our senses - how they construct our perceptual reality - can we begin to experience that reality more fully?