Every person in this world is different, but I think that there is one thing we can all agree on: commercial breaks are the worst. There is nothing I despise more than watching my favorite reality television show as the host delivers the dreaded line, “we will find out who gets eliminated… after these short messages.” I let out a sigh as each commercial comes and goes, and always find myself more impatient as the advertisements roll on.
Don’t get me wrong, most commercials seem to interrupt the best part of a television show: watching it. However, there is one group of commercials that have always stood out to me. These are the fast-food fancy restaurant commercials. You know, the ones where “real people” are brought to a fancy restaurant and are told that they are eating cuisine from the most “reputable chefs” around the world. Then, while the customers are in the process of raving about their meal, someone walks into the room and tells them that they have been eating fast-food burgers the whole time (yes, these commercials do exist). The part of these commercials that I always remember is how surprised the customers are. How do they get they fooled so easily?
My question was finally answered after reading “Auguste Escoffier: The Essence of Taste” from the journal Proust Was A Neuroscientist for homework. This chapter described several factors that led to Auguste Escoffier’s success as a French chef. One of these factors was the environment that Escoffier created and served his food in. His food was beautifully plated, his waiters were well-trained, and the names of his dishes reflected the high-quality atmosphere of his restaurants (Lehrer, 2008). I immediately connected this idea to the commercials that I always found so fascinating. Clearly the power of perception was not only used in fast-food commercials!
The power of perception is known as top-down processing. Top-down processing occurs when we use previous experiences and judgement to understand our environment and sensory experiences. Instead of sensory information being processed first (which is called bottom-up processing), top-down processing relies on our preconceived notions of the world. So, if I were to put myself in the shoes of those commercial customers, I would be more focused on the environment than the food itself. Because I would be sitting in a fancy restaurant with top-quality silverware and service, my expectation would be for the food to taste delicious. After all, it is a fancy restaurant and food tastes good at fancy restaurants, right? Perception is a powerful tool and can greatly impact the way our senses work. Food can taste much better just by believing it will taste good. This concept also applies to Escoffier’s success as a chef. Regardless of how the food tasted, Escoffier placed his customers in an environment where their previous experiences of “good food” would play a significant role in their taste perception. The act of being in a fancy restaurant indeed does trick the brain to believe that the food will taste incredible.
The list of how our environment can impact our sensory experiences goes on and on. Recently, I came across a study that combined top-down processing with one of my favorite hobbies: music. Conducted by Qian Wang and Charles Spence (2016), the purpose of this experiment was to determine whether consonant and dissonant music affected the taste of fruity beverages. Consonant music is when a combination of notes sounds pleasant and is often expressed in thirds or fifths. Dissonant music, however, is when notes are played that make the listener feel uncomfortable. Dissonant music is often expressed in half-steps. In this study, it was hypothesized that participants would experience a sweeter taste while listening to consonant music than the dissonant music. In the experiment, a fruity drink was created with grapefruit, apple, and orange juice. Thirty-nine participants sat down at the computer and were asked to drink the juice while they listened to four pieces of music- two being consonant, and the other two being dissonant. When the participants finished their drinks and songs, they were asked a series of questions about their opinions of the music. In addition, they were asked to rate the drink on a scale from sour to sweet. The results of this study supported the study’s hypothesis: more people enjoyed the fruit juice and rated it as sweeter while listening to consonant music (Wang and Spence 2016). This is due to top-down processing. Because consonant music is more “pleasurable,” participants most likely felt happier while drinking the fruity drink. In addition, their happiness could have contributed to their perception of how the drink would taste. Pretty cool, right?
Perception is like a superpower- if we use it to our advantage, we can be invincible. Now, you never have to worry about tasting bad food again. Just pretend that it is being served by the finest chefs at an amazing restaurant!
Wang Q, Spence C. “striking a sour note”: Assessing the influence of consonant and dissonant music on taste perception. Multisensory research. 2016;29(1–3):195–208.
Lehrer, Jonah. 2008. In: Proust Was A Neuroscientist. Boston (MA): Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 53-74