For centuries, the common practice has been to think of and talk about the human senses as separate from each other. It’s a perception that derives largely from Descartes, and his concept of the mind/body duality.
Modern science is rapidly disproving that theory, demonstrating not only that the mind and body are indeed interconnected in profound and mysterious ways, but also that the human senses, too, are far more intertwined than we knew (1). There’s even a word for this interconnection of the senses. It’s known as synesthesia, and science is now suggesting that what was once thought of as a sensory processing anomaly may well be the perceptual norm for humans (1).
This discovery, though, is far more than an intellectual curiosity, an interesting factoid to share with friends and family. Rather, as our understanding of the mechanisms of human perception deepens, so, too, do the implications across almost every domain of life, from how we educate our children to how we communicate with peers and colleagues and how we move, live in, and engage with the world.
It’s in the arena of architectural and landscape design that such insights seem to have direct and more obvious impacts. Understanding how human senses function, and how they engage not only with the external world but also with one another is increasingly shaping architecture and environmental design.
Perhaps the greatest impacts are to be found in the most unlikely of pairings: the deep but previously little-recognized nexus between taste and sound. Indeed, there’s mounting evidence that the sound environment can play a critical role in the perception of taste (2, 3), and that realization is something that can strongly influence how restaurants, hotels, and other public food venues are designed, where they are built, and how they are outfitted.
Sounds So Sweet
Humans are designed to respond to sweetness. Even the slightest taste of sugar sends the pleasure centers of the brain into ecstatic overdrive. It's little wonder that we often turn to sweet treats to celebrate happy occasions and to comfort ourselves in sad ones. So strongly do we associate love and pleasure with the taste of sweetness that we often assign “sweet” nicknames to our best-beloved ones – honey, sugar, sweetie pie.
Even the power of sweetness is not immune from the force of the sound environment on gustatory (taste) perception. Consider, for instance, a fun and illuminating study recently conducted by Xu et al. (2019), which tested subjects’ perceptions of the taste of ice cream when eaten in different sound environments (4). The researchers found that when subjects ate the same brand and flavor of ice cream in a soundscape that combined nature and cafe sounds, they described the ice cream as tasting sweeter and creamier than when eaten in a neutral or noise-aversive environment. They also exhibited physiological changes, including changes in blood volume pulse (BVP) amplitudes, that usually indicate a relaxed and contented state.
What this suggests, ultimately, is that your sound environment affects your mood and impacts your perception. The soundscape doesn’t simply have a harmful effect in the context of noise pollution (5-8), it can also have a delightfully positive impact when used strategically and well (9-11).
Few people know this better than the owners, designers, and patrons of Seattle’s beloved MollyMoon ice cream shops, with whom FSorb proudly provided acoustic solutions to attune their soundscape for optimal taste. From its inception, MollyMoon has been on a mission to offer a second-to-none guest experience without compromising their commitment to sustainability.
FSorb built fully-customized, eco-friendly acoustic solutions to provide guests with a next-level experience. Our colorful and decorative tiles and panels have been used throughout MollyMoon’s Seattle locations to help make the taste of MollyMoon ice cream just a little bit sweeter by creating the ideal, flavor-enhancing soundscape.
I Can’t Hear Myself Eat!
Given the significant impact a positive sound environment can have on taste perception, it should come as no surprise that the opposite is true. Loud, noisy environments are increasingly being associated with a decline in perceived taste quality (12).
This can be explained, at least in part, by the role that the sound of food often plays in our assessment of its taste. There’s a reason, after all, why the mere sound of bacon sizzling will make your mouth water or why potato chips that have lost their crunch just don’t taste as good.
That means that high levels of background noise in a restaurant won’t just have a detrimental impact on the guests’ dining experience, it’s also likely to undermine diners’ perception of the quality of the food. In a highly competitive industry, such as hospitality, this avoidable disadvantage can have devastating consequences for the business. So, it’s not only chefs and restaurateurs who play a critical role in a restaurant’s survival and success. The restaurant’s interior designer and acoustic engineer contribute in important ways as well.
Engineering the Soundscape
As our understanding of the relationship between taste and sound grows, so too does the ability of interior and acoustic designers to engineer the soundscape to serve specific purposes. Interestingly, the evidence suggests that while high-decibel environments, such as that of an airplane cabin, decrease the perception of sweetness, saltiness, and bitterness, they can actually substantially increase the perception of savoriness.
Such insight can be a powerful tool for architects and designers seeking to craft sound environments that align with the unique attributes of the space. This might involve, for example, engineering discrete zones of sound to enhance functionality, including the sense of taste for a designated area.
This is also a highly effective acoustic strategy for architects and designers planning multipurpose spaces, such as hotels. Within a hotel, for example, you have a variety of sound zones, each with the potential to be customized not only for various rooms, halls, and hallways but also for the wide array of functions each space serves. Large, resort-style hotels typically feature a number of restaurants, bars, and lounges onsite, each serving a unique menu and targeting a specific customer base (families, children, business travelers, singles, or couples on vacation).
While creating ideal environments for occupants moving through these multifunctional spaces, savvy architects and designers must be attuned to the various soundscapes suited to each area. When it comes to designing eating and drinking areas within such spaces, that means cultivating a deep understanding of how, exactly, sound influences the perception of taste.
Let FSorb Help
FSorb is an industry leader in acoustic design. We are proud to offer a wide array of customizable acoustic solutions to suit every need. Our expert team of designers and acoustic engineers has partnered with restaurateurs and hoteliers around the world to create best-in-class sound environments for the hospitality industry. Contact your local FSorb representative today to explore our vast catalog of innovative products and discuss how we can help make your next commercial project sound like the sweet taste of success.
At FSorb, we are motivated by improving human health and do so by creating eco-friendly acoustic products. Our mission is to help designers build beautiful spaces that reduce excess ambient noise while calming the human nervous system. With over 25 years in the acoustic business we stand behind FSorb as a durable, environmentally friendly, and low-cost product. If you want an acoustic solution that is safe to human health at an affordable price, then we are your resource.
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