Multi-sensory perception and neuroscience-inspired design might sound like a mouthful, but you’re probably more familiar with it than you think. Immersive dining experiences and increased sensory awareness have become engrained in the cutting-edge dining experience, in large part thanks to the research of Professor Charles Spence. Founder of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University — with its interdisciplinary team of psychologists, designers, sensory scientists, chefs, composers, and marketers — Spence will be speaking on the future of food as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s V&A Future Series with Propela: Food talks.
And although Spence has always been deeply rooted in the multi-sensory experience, his journey didn’t begin with food. “I have always been interested in the senses and in applying the latest insights from the psychological sciences to the design of the real world,” Spence tells What We Seee. “However, at first this focused mostly on the design of warning signals for car drivers, and multisensory environments to enhance well-being. I never thought about applying the approach to food, because despite being one of the most multisensory, not to mention enjoyable, of our everyday experiences, psychologists like me never seemed to touch the topic. Much easier to stick someone in front of a computer screen than to have to prepare some food to give people to taste.” Eventually, his career led him more into the food industry — but it wasn’t until he teamed up with one of the UK’s top chefs that it became clear what this new genre was capable of.
“Then came my work with chefs like Heston Blumenthal, and suddenly the whole thing exploded. Nowadays, I spend all my time trying to convince my academic colleagues that they should really get into studying food,” he explains. “…Heston and I got chatting and started doing talks and experiments together. I still remember projecting my slides onto the wall between services when talking to the chefs, while the wait staff was busy ironing the tablecloths. From my side, it was a real eye-opener. After years working with the food industry (where the science typically ended up in some terrible product prototypes), here was someone who was really able to take the science and turn it into delicious memorable tasty dishes.” When they created the Sounds of the Sea dish together, it was clear they had found something incredible.
Harnessing Ubiquitous Technology
While many experts who discuss the future resort to histrionics and hysteria, Spence has a much more balanced view of what’s to come. “Funnily enough I don’t believe in most of the new technologies that are touted in the press as representing the future of food,” he tells What We Seee. “As I make clear in my latest food book, Gastrophysics: The new science of eating, I see little chance that 3D food printers will be sitting on our work-tops at home any time soon. Too slow, too tiresome to clean. For food innovation in companies it has a place, perhaps, but otherwise not. I am similarly unimpressed by the robot chef/mixologist. I think a part of what we value in food is feeling the hand of the maker, the individual variation that you don’t get from the production line, or from the robot chef. Same thing every time, where is the appeal in that? And then we have all this talk of electric noses, digital tongues, and AI chefs. Again, I think that the hype doesn’t live up to the reality. Flavour perception is incredibly complex. It is one of the most multisensory things we do. So until someone can figure out how our brains manage to combine the cues from nose and mouth etc, I think there is little chance of flavour being created or delivered digitally, much though we would all like it to be true.”
Rather than panicking about food robots taking over our kitchens, Spence is fascinated by the technology that’s already invaded our lives — and how that can improve our dining experience. “Well, I am very much interested in the use of ubiquitous digital technologies at the dinner table,” he explains. “Mobile phones, tablet computers, there is incredible technology in there. So, given how widespread they are, I think that is the best way to reposition those devices for the dinner table. This could be everything from eating off your tablet computer, say, so you could optimize the colour contrast between the food and the plate (as the latest research suggests that this really makes a difference. Or how about sonic seasoning? Using your mobile device to deliver music at mealtimes that can actually season your food sonically. We have done the research to find the kinds of music, or musical properties that can make your dessert taste sweeter, your food spicier, and chocolate creamier… ” It’s definitely an intriguing possibility.
One of the most challenging parts of his job is that so many people — whether they work in the food industry or are just your average home cook — don’t realize how much their taste can be influenced. “The challenge then is how to make people realise the multisensory nature of their perception,” Spence explains. “I could write another paper, or give another talk telling people this is the case. But when things/facts don’t fit our intuitions then all of us have a hard time accepting them. This is why, for me, experiential tasting events are so important. Take the Singleton Sensorium in 2013, or the Campo Viejo Colour Lab in 2014. We were able to demonstrate to thousands of people just how profoundly their flavour perception changes when the environment changes.” And it’s those insights that he’s hoping to share to a larger audience.
The fact that Spence’s research has spread so far is especially interesting when you discover he was not a natural public figure — partly due to a deep fear of public speaking. “If I ever had to speak to more than one other person, my skin would go bright red and my eyes start watering profusely!” he tells What We Seee. “I still remember having to give my first proper talk to the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University, where I was doing my PhD. I literally couldn’t sleep for the three months beforehand. I was utterly petrified! In at the deep end as they say. It all went well enough and, after that, the fear started to subside. Now I really enjoy public-speaking and being able to share all the latest scientific findings with a broader public. In fact, sometimes I am a bit too relaxed. I think that it is probably a good idea to have a little tension/excitement before a talk, and nowadays I sometimes get that element of nerves back by leaving the talk preparation till the very last minute.” It definitely seems to be working.
With food sensations and the larger food industry to think about, Spence always has new challenges awaiting him. “Thinking about the future of food, about how to use technology to deliver food solutions that are sustainable in the long term, both for us as consumers, but also for the planet as a whole is a hugely challenging and exciting area,” he says. “So, I am really looking forward to sharing my views with others and hearing what everyone else has to say about where we are going and how exactly we might get there.” With his knowledge and passion, he’s sure to come up with something.
The “Future Series: Food” discussion will take place on Friday, 18 of May. Tickets are on sale now.