I had the privilege of meeting Christopher Simons, a professor of sensory science in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the Ohio State University.
Chris' work centers around how context can shape perception - specifically in regards to the sense of taste. He works with food and beverage companies to test flavors before they are rolled out into the marketplace. You might have seen the Speedway commercial regarding their improved coffee flavor developed in conjunction with the OSU lab.
Chris describes his approach to taste as a triangle. The three points are made of expectation, experience, and consolidated memory. For example, when you open a Coca-Cola, there is an expectation of what you are about to drink, from a previous experience (assuming you've had one), which has been consolidated into a memory.
The lab is investigating how environment (or context) can shape the expectation and experience of a flavor. Previously, they were presenting various food and drink test items to taste test participants in a small room lit with only a red light. The red light was suppose to minimize the influence of the visual of the food by making all items in the test the same color.
Chris is now creating a testing room that is surrounded with large video screens with footage of a particular environment (for example, a coffee shop if the test is about coffee). Additionally, he is adding an olfactory component to this immersive environment. If using the coffee shop example above, he would pump the smell of cinnamon rolls into the room. Chris believes that this environment will be reflect a truer experience for testing food and drink flavors.
Chris also talked about the relationship between taste and smell. This brought up the concepts of orthonasal and retronasal. Experiencing a smell orthonasaly is through the nose. Experience a smell (and taste) through the mouth is retronasaly. A way to test the concept of retronasal is by holding your nose while sucking on a Jolly Rancher. You will only taste a sweetness. Once you release your nose, you will experience the flavor of the Jolly Rancher, and not just the sweetness. We've all had the experience of food tasting different when our nose is congested. This highlights taste's dependency on smell to fully function.
He also talked about the olfactory being the only sense that goes directly into the limbic system. The limbic system is the portion of the brain that also manages emotions and long term memory. This explains the strong connection between scent and memory.
It was a fascinating conversation, and one I hope to continue during another visit.