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Multisensory dining and driving -

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Robyn Williams: What is that funny chair you're sitting on? In fact it looks like a car seat on
your sofa and you're sitting on it. What does it do?

Charles Spence: It really is a car seat on my sofa, I bought it a few years ago to try and look at
the effects of having a massage while driving. So this is a kind of device you can buy in any of
the gimmicky stores that will massage your back in various ways. One of the modes you can see here
is it will vibrate you on the left, the right, the left, the right, and the thought was that when
you're being vibrated on your left maybe that pulls your attention to the left so you're more
likely to see things on the left and less likely to see things on your right-hand side. So we've
been doing research now for a few years in my lab actually looking at using vibration on different
parts of a driver's anatomy in order to try and capture their attention and to pull their gaze to
things of interest or near accidents that might be about to happen.

Robyn Williams: Meet Charles Spence. He really is the most unusual professor. Apart from having car
seats on his sofa he also consults with the world's most famous chefs to help them get their
dinners the right colour and called the best names. But what about a massage while you drive? Is he

Charles Spence: Yes, we can pull people's attention to the front or the back if we massage them to
the front or the back, or to the left or right, and that leads them to about 15% reduction in
braking latencies. So you're 15% quicker to hit the brake pedal when the car in front of you stops
or when some unexpected event comes from the left or the right, some child running out, say.

Robyn Williams: So it wasn't the massaging itself, it was the effect on one side of the body...

Charles Spence: So the effect that...your skin is your biggest sense and isn't really used much
while driving, and in a way you can't help but process that information when somebody touches you,
but no-one until recently has really thought about what effects it has. They think the massaging
itself might also have effects on arousal and relaxation.

Robyn Williams: It's rather disconcerting knowing how many different ways you can have your
attention distracted or reinforced. Is this the unifying theme in your research, because you've got
all manner of stuff around your office; apart from the wonderful posters, you've got bowls of fruit
with labels on them. You do food, you do colours, you do tastes, so what is the unifying theme?

Charles Spence: What gets me going I guess is the human senses and how they interact with one
another, and trying to understand the rules that our brains use to combine all this mass of
information, too many sights and smells and tastes to process, and hence our brain uses kind of
short cuts. It says, okay, in this situation I'll just rely on my eyes and I'll forget about the
taste or the sound, whereas in other situations you might rely on your hearing instead of your
touch. And we're trying to see which of your senses dominates. We're all multi-sensory, and all of
our brains seem to use the same sorts of rules.

Robyn Williams: You're saying they're interconnected.

Charles Spence: That's right. To most people it's intuitively obvious that we do have these
separate five key senses, each with their own separate receptor; the eyes, the ears, the nose. But
once you get to the brain things get a lot more complicated quite quickly and you find even at the
very earliest stages of brain processing what you see is changing what you hear and having it
impact on the auditory parts of your brain. And what you see when you see a food changes the smell
and the way it's processed, even from the first connections in the brain.

And the more that we look at the brain through neuro-imaging and through patient studies, any
technique that we can, we see this massive interconnection of the senses, to the extent now that
there are a lot of articles appearing by researchers saying does it even make sense to talk about
visual brain or auditory brain if there are so many connections, then maybe it's all multi-sensory
up there.

Robyn Williams: How are you working with chefs on this?

Charles Spence: A few different ways. Most closely over the last couple of years with Heston
Blumenthal at the Fat Duck which is about half an hour from Oxford in Bray, and his cooking is very
much inspired by...if we know about the science, the psychology and the neuroscience, we ought to
be able to design dishes that are more intriguing and appealing and exciting.

Robyn Williams: Like snail soup.

Charles Spence: Snail porridge, that's right. There, in that case, thinking about labelling. But
we've been working with him looking both at the effects of colour of food, and I go down to give
lectures to his sous chefs and his other chefs, and for a lot of them they've been brought up that
cooking is only about the quality of the ingredients, they've never really thought about the
colour. So when I show them some of the demonstrations of how easily you can flip the flavour of
foods just by colouring white wine red, say, in one classic example, it makes you realise that you
have to think about the eyes and what they're telling your brain about the flavour of food.

Robyn Williams: What was that example? What happened?

Charles Spence: White wine, and you ask people, be they wine experts or wine novices, and get them
to judge what smell or aroma the wine has, and they'll come up with things; citrus, lychee, straw,
lemon. Give them a glass of red wine and ask them to do the same and then they'll, say, some up
with terms like tobacco and chocolate and berries, dark fruit food colours. Then I give people a
third glass of the white wine again, but now just coloured artificially so it looks the same colour
as the red wine and say, 'What do you smell?' And people, both the experts and the novices, say, 'I
smell the tobacco, the chocolate and the berry.' The wine tastes exactly the same, exactly the same
odours are coming off it but our eyes have such a powerful effect that they're completely changing
what we think is going in our nose, and you cannot overcome that effect even if you paid $30 or $40
or more for a bottle of wine, you'll still have the effect.

Robyn Williams: I do remember, on the other hand, that I think at Caltech they did studies that the
more expensive the wine the more the subjects felt that it was good stuff.

Charles Spence: That's true, you're tasting how much you pay for the wine. I think there's a link
there that branded products more than unbranded ones, expensive ones will taste better to you than
cheap products in the wine case, or the effects of colour, all these things are expectancy effects
and our beliefs about what things should taste like to actually influence how they do taste. And in
all cases it might be an example of the placebo effect that we've known about for many years in
medicine; if you believe it works, it does work.

Robyn Williams: But if you give me a grey bowl of what's gooey and call it snail porridge, I'll be
even more revolted than just looking at the name. Did you recommend a different colour for the
snail porridge?

Charles Spence: The snail porridge in the restaurant comes as a bright green instead, but I think
there's a lot of interesting work to be done on the effects of label on foods, what you call a
dish. In that case, calling it snail porridge rather than snail soup was designed to shock and
intrigue, and it has precisely that effect. But in other cases we're working, say, with Heston to
try and get the names for dishes that are the more effective, dishes where the name of the dish
matches the flavours in it.

One thing we're working on at the moment is to give people two plates just with a small bit of food
on each plate, and we'll say one of these foods is maluma, one of them is takete, we won't tell you
which is which, just eat them, and we want you to pick the name out for yourself. And when you turn
over the plate there we would have predicted the name that you would have given the dish. So,
things like cranberry is a very takete kind of food to most people, and a soft creamy brie is very

This is the challenge for Heston and chefs like him, with that insight about these correspondences
between sounds and tastes, to try and design dishes that best embody that notion of takete, be it
crispy tastes or sharp acidic notes, albeit soft and creamy, or even to build up then courses of
dishes that actually are...if you wanted to make a kind of takebu kind of food, how should you let
the flavour emerge.

Robyn Williams: How do you explain that as a scientist, that there should be this direct link
between people's perception and the sort of name with consonants or vowels that are long and woozy?

Charles Spence: Part of the answer might be the shape that our mouths make when we make certain
sounds. So if I ask you, 'I've got a small circle and a big circle, which one is 'mill' and which
one is 'mall'?' you'll say the big circle is 'mall' and the small one is 'mill', and maybe why you
find that association is that your mouth makes a smaller opening when you say 'mill' and when you
say 'mall' your mouth opens wider and hence you associate the kind of shapes your own mouth would
make with the shape out there.

Alternatively we think maybe what your brain is doing is picking up consistencies between the
sense, so sharp, angular sounds go with sharp, singular crispy tastes, whereas soft and rounded
sounds will go with soft, rounded curvy, fluffy shapes, and with longer, creamier, softer tastes.

Robyn Williams: It would be interesting to test that with other languages, Japanese or Chinese or

Charles Spence: That's right. The basic maluma, takete effect, which has been shown for angular
shapes going with takete and cloud shapes going with maluma has been tested around the world now,
and where you go it's about eight out of ten, which is as good as a psychologist ever gets, to show
that association.

Robyn Williams: That's very good indeed. Back to Hector Blumenthal, the thing that really astounds
me about his approach to cooking (and you mentioned science), to use one of his recipes he gives
you a list not simply of ingredients but of apparatus which is almost like a complete physics lab.
You've got to get cryogenic, you've got to get cutters, you've got to get all sorts of apparatus
that no normal household would have.

Charles Spence: It's not something that's necessarily designed for people to do at home, and I've
just got a copy of his latest tome, ten kilos and 1,000 pages, tries to seamlessly merge half the
book on these impossible to replicate recipes, and the other half the scientists behind the scenes
and what their insights show. I think he's doing a very good job of getting the general public to
think more and accept the idea of science and food going together in a way that a few years ago
people were very reticent about ('science and food? That's not right, I want my food natural'), and
he shows how the scientific approach can be used to actually make things taste better and it's not
something that you should be afraid of.

Robyn Williams: Going back to driving. The thing that has really been shocking to me, frankly, we
did a series on it, on the apparatus in the street, the cameras and the various things, are
distracting you from the straight old-fashioned way of driving that responsible people did, looking
ahead at the cars and the pedestrians and all the obvious stuff on the road rather than those other
things. Are you amazed that we managed to drive effectively at all, all those thousands of people,
all those millions of miles, knowing what you know about our perceptions, that we manage to do it
at all effectively?

Charles Spence: We seem to be doing a better and better job year by year. Accident rates are going
down, despite the fact that there are all these attention grabbing toys and gimmicks and devices
that are being thrown at us and put in our cars. I've been working with car companies for 10, 20
years now, and when I first started I used to work with a German car company, and their top of the
range model actually had more knobs and controls and dials and buzzers than the fighter planes that
they were also working on, about 400, 500 different controls. So with that amount of complexity you
might think it surprising that we don't have more accidents. But maybe there's this sense in which
our brains might be monitoring the environment, sometimes at a subconscious level to try and
protect us from danger. So although our conscious mind is fully engaged with the satellite
navigation or the internet while driving, there are other parts of our brain that are actually more
attentive and taking care of what's going on around and helping us to avoid accidents.

Robyn Williams: Let me ask you two final questions. One of them is about what you tell the motor
manufacturers, given what's out there in the street and given what's in the cars. What has your
advice been?

Charles Spence: We were actually approached about three or four years ago by a Japanese
manufacturer who said, 'We've got very smart engineers, we've got a lot of computers in our cars so
that we know long before the driver does that they're about to crash. Our engineers have come up
with a red flashing light that warns the driver when they're about the crash and they should do
something about it.' And this you can see in their television adverts in Japan. 'You as a
psychologist, can you do anything better?'

That was the challenge, and we were able to show that we could do something better, specifically by
using not vision because that's the sense that's most overloaded when driving, but using auditory
warning signals, vibrations coming from something like this vibrating chair, and especially in
combination if, say, we want the driver to attend straight ahead, if they're distracted to the
side, then a vibration on their stomach together with a car horn sound projected in the direction
where the accident might occur can lead to up to about six-tenths of a second reduction in braking
times which, according to the best estimates, should reduce front to rear-end collisions by 50%.

The other approach that we've been pursuing with the car companies, which there's a lot of
excitement about at the moment, is building on some of the latest neuroscience. It turns out that
the space behind your head, space you never really think about, just 50 centimetres to the back of
your head is actually very important to us. If we think about predators and prey then something
that bites us there is going to do lots of damage, and hence it seems that there are actually
specialised neural circuits that just code for that bit of space just behind your head. Whenever
anything happens in that region of space, even though you can't see it your brain respond to it and
there are hardwired defensive circuits.

So if I just have a little sound like that [clicks fingers] just behind your ear, you'll
automatically turn your head and maybe have a defensive gesture. So we've been working with the car
companies trying to take that basic insight and now designing warning signals that actually come
from the headrest or thereabouts in that region of near, rear, very personal space. And, again,
showing there that we can actually get drivers to pull their eyes back onto the road that much
faster by placing signals there out of sight behind the head than the engineers ever could by
flashing displays or knobs or anything else they could think of.

Robyn Williams: There's also one thing recommended by John Reid from Monash University who is a
psychologist, that people who are beginning to drop off or getting drowsy, there's something that
can monitor the eyes that then could wake them up with some sort of claxon.

Charles Spence: That's a possibility. People have also thought about using fragrance. The problem
with the claxon is it's very unpleasant, and what you see from warning signals, say for pilots, is
anything that's too unpleasant or too repetitive or gives you too many false alarms will be
disconnected by the pilot or driver. So car companies are looking for ways to reinvigorate or alert
the driver that don't have that unpleasant sound. So automatically rolling down the windows could
be effective. Fragrance, again something like alerting peppermint or citrus can improve alertness
by 10% to 15% but without any of those unpleasant effects of the claxon.

Also I guess just by monitoring the driver, not only by how much their eyes blink but also there
are systems out there now that interrogate you, the driver, talk to you, and by the speed of your
speech they can tell how tired you are, or by how closely you grip the steering wheel they can tell
how tired you are. If you put all that information together with the sensors that tell the car
about the road conditions-is it raining, is it dark, what's the general traffic level like?-you can
actually start to design the warning signals and the assistant systems that are especially
calibrated to you, the driver, and your particular state on the road today, and hence optimise
warning signal and display design to enable people to drive as safely, even though they're a little
bit less alert.

Robyn Williams: So much for the car, what about the people? What's really the most obvious thing to
you as a psychologist that people are not aware of as drivers?

Charles Spence: We all have, myself included, this belief that we can see everything, everything
that's out there in front of us we're aware of, and what's most shocking is the experiments that
show in fact you may not be aware of the gorilla walking across the screen that's been used on
adverts in London recently, or in the case of the driving that if you flash up pictures of
pedestrians or cyclists, even though they're looking straight at them the drivers may not see the
pedestrian or cyclist if their attention is on satellite navigation or something else. So what is
most surprising is this erroneous belief that we can see all that's in front of us when in fact
what we see is only that which we're attending to.

Robyn Williams: Oops! Hard to believe you'll actually miss seeing a gorilla in the street, but it's
true. Professor Charles Spence at the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford. And I think
everyone agrees, snail porridge should be green. Obvious, isn't it.