Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

As Bitter as a Trombone: Synesthetic Correspondences in Nonsynesthetes between Tastes/flavors and Musical Notes

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

As Bitter as a Trombone: Synesthetic Correspondences in Nonsynesthetes between Tastes/flavors and Musical Notes

Article excerpt

In parallel to studies of various cases of synesthesia, many cross-modal correspondences have also been documented in nonsynesthetes. Among these correspondences, implicit associations between taste and pitch have been reported recently (Crisinel & Spence, 2009, 2010). Here, we replicate and extend these findings through explicit matching of sounds of varying pitch to a range of tastes/flavors. In addition, participants in the experiment reported here also chose the type of musical instrument most appropriate for each taste/flavor. The association of sweet and sour tastes to high-pitched notes was confirmed. By contrast, umami and bitter tastes were preferentially matched to low-pitched notes. Flavors did not display such strong pitch associations. The choice of musical instrument seems to have been driven primarily by a matching of the hedonic value and familiarity of the two types of stimuli. Our results raise important questions about our representation of tastes and flavors and could also lead to applications in the marketing of food products.

Synesthesia is an intriguing condition. Although the first detailed scientific report on synesthesia dates from more than a century ago (Galton, 1880), its mechanisms are still unclear (Cytowic & Eagleman, 2009). More attention has been devoted by researchers recently to various cases of synesthesia (see Hochel & Milán, 2008, for a review; see also Harrison, 2001). But are the perceptual experiences of synesthetes so very different from those of nonsynesthetes? Our senses certainly do not work in isolation from each other. We live in a multisensory world, and our brains constantly combine information from different sensory modalities in order to make sense of our environment (see Calvert, Spence, & Stein, 2004). The senses of taste and smell are so tightly combined in the evaluation of flavor that it is sometimes considered a form of synesthesia that is common to us all (Auvray & Spence, 2008; Small & Prescott, 2005; Stevenson & Tomiczek, 2007; see also Djordjevic, Zatorre, & Jones-Gotman, 2004). Moreover, the evaluation of the sweetness (i.e., a gustatory property) of a novel odor can be modified simply by pairing it during training with a sweet taste (Stevenson, Boakes, & Prescott, 1998). A number of other cross-modal associations have now also been reported, such as between pitch and visual size (Evans & Treisman, 2010; Gallace & Spence, 2006; Parise & Spence, 2009), between brightness and the frequency of vibrotactile stimuli (Martino & Marks, 2000), or between colors and tastes (O'Mahony, 1983). The use of audiovisual metaphors for loudness, pitch, and brightness has also been reported (Marks, 1982). These associations are different from those present in synesthetes in that they are bidirectional (synesthesia is usually thought of as being unidirectional, but see Johnson, Jepma, & de Jong, 2007), and a stimulus presented in one sensory modality does not elicit a conscious experience in another modality. However, the existence of these cross-modal associations supports the hypothesis that synesthesia might originate in feedback connections from a point of convergence of the two sensory pathways (Grossenbacher & Lovelace, 2001). Several researchers have argued in recent years that cross-modal associations and synesthesia may be usefully compared in an effort to better understand both phenomena (e.g., Sagiv & Ward, 2006; Ward, Huckstep, & Tsakanikos, 2006).

Associations between tastes and particular pitches have been reported previously by Holt-Hansen (1968, 1976) in a comparison of different brands of beer. It has also recently been shown that basic tastes are associated to relative pitch (Crisinel & Spence, 2009, 2010): In implicit association tasks, participants tend to associate sweet and sour tastes with high-pitched sounds. In these studies, tastes were evoked via the names of food or drink items. …

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