The senses, brain food and paying attention

professor-charles-spenceProfessor Charles Spence (pictured), a world-leading expert in manipulating the human experience by playing with the senses, is joining forces with Flinders University to find out how people influence our ability to pay attention to the world around us.

The Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University has spent the past two weeks at Flinders planning a new project to determine whether the presence of people impacts performance, such as the ability to drive a car in a straight line or monitor a security screen.

Working with Professor Mike Nicholls in the School of Psychology, the research could help lead to better designs for human/machine interfaces, including the development of special coatings for car steering wheels that help bring a driver’s attention back to the middle of the road.

“When people are trying to pay attention to a stimulus, having someone sitting next to them can have a repulsion effect so their attention gets shifted away from where it’s supposed to be,” Professor Spence, who came to Flinders under the Visiting International Research Fellowship program, said.

“This could lead to significant attention biases, for example a person driving a car might start leaning towards the right-hand side of the road because of the passenger sitting next to them, or an air-traffic controller might have difficulty paying attention to all parts of a radar screen,” he said.

During his two-week stay at Flinders, Professor Spence gave a public lecture on his main area of expertise – “cross-modal correspondence” – or how the classic sensors of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell interact with each other.

His research, which spans 20 years, has led to some interesting theories on the “sounds” of food.

“People associate sweet-tasting foods with a high pitched sound whereas bitter foods are associated with low notes, so what I try to do is match a food to its sound to enhance the experience of diners in restaurants and coffee shops,” he said.

“For example, if a wine has predominant blackcurrant or lime flavours, I try to find what noises go with that flavour then design a piece of music that might enhance the tastes of the wine.”

Professor Spence – who won the 2008 lg Nobel Prize for modifying the sounds of a potato chip to make it taste crispier and fresher than it really is – has also, for the past 10 years, worked alongside the master of food manipulation Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire.

The pair collaborated to produce the restaurant’s signature “Sound of the Sea” dish, a culinary feast for the senses complete with sea foam, seaweed and a set of headphones popping out of a clamshell which play the sound of seagulls and waves crashing on the shore.

“Most chefs think the taste of food, and how your source and prepare it, is all that matters but we’re trying to convince chefs that you can actually design the gastronomic experience to enhance certain flavours and make the dish taste more enjoyable.”

Aside from The Fat Duck, Professor Spence has worked with dozens of big-name companies including Starbucks where he has matched in-store music with the coffee, as well as Nestlé and Kraft to design TV advertisements representing the taste and smell of their products.

Professor Nicholls said he was delighted to have the Visiting International Professor at Flinders, particularly to survey a number of PhD student projects on the cognitive structures that control spatial attention.

“It’s a great honour to have someone of Charles’ experience and standing here at Flinders, and we are looking forward to working with him on future projects,” Professor Nicholls said.

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