When we think about how our senses work, we imagine them operating individually: you sniff a flower, and the smell is delivered uninterrupted from nose to brain. However, it is more complicated than that. Our senses mingle more often than we realise, collaborating to help us make sense of the world more easily. For example, we call dull thuds “heavy” and associate them with large objects, even though the sound itself has no size or weight. This would have helped our ancestors decide whether to run away from predators based on how big they sounded, without stopping to look them over. Most evidence for crossmodal perception comes from studies into sound and vision, which isn’t surprising considering how often we use them together. But research that shows other senses crossing over is emerging all the time, and it seems that even sound and smell sometimes form an unlikely pairing.
Further research found that listening to different sounds can alter your perceptions. Studying taste this time, the team ordered some cinder toffee made by Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant and put together “soundscapes” corresponding to bitterness and sweetness. Participants tasted identical pieces of toffee while listening to each soundscape, and found the toffee more bitter or sweeter, depending on which soundtrack they were listening to.
Studies like this are helping psychologists redefine our understanding of the senses, and how the brain integrates them to its advantage. And just imagine the possible creative collaborations between musicians and chefs: sound-enhanced wining and dining could be imminent. You might one day be routinely ordering a coffee with a soundtrack to bring out your favourite aromas.