Synaesthesia: The multisensory dining experience

Paper from Charles Spence, the authority on designing food and dining experiences in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science 18 (2019).


“The phenomenon of synaesthesia has undoubtedly proved a great inspiration to a number of artists, designers, and marketers for more than a century now. In fact, novelists, poets, composers, and painters, such as Nabokov, Baudelaire, Scriabin, and Kandinsky, all used synaesthetic correspondences to inform their world-famous artworks. By contrast, chefs, the best of whom are increasingly being considered as artists in their own right, rarely seem to reference the condition in their culinary creations. This situation is, though, slowly starting to change, as a small but growing number of innovative chefs take the surprising cross-sensory connections exemplified by synaesthesia, and the related phenomenon of crossmodal correspondences, as a source of culinary inspiration and aid to menu design. Illustrating this new approach, we summarize Synaesthesia, a multisensory dining concept that was presented to diners by Kitchen Theory in London in 2015.

The recipes for this multi-course tasting menu are provided and a number of the key experimental findings, based on the dishes that were served, discussed. The popularity of this culinary concept highlights the potential of the synaesthesia/crossmodal correspondences approach to stimulate both the chefs as well as the diners they serve. Synaesthesia constituted a delicious form of edible ‘edutainment’. According to press reports, many diners came away from this tasting menu with their curiosity having been stirred. The hope is that they also learnt something about how their senses function together in order to deliver the rich multisensory experiences of everyday life, no matter whether or not they themselves happened to be synaesthetic.” (Charles Spence and Jozef Youssef, 2019)

Multisensory Experiences: A Primer

From the primer: “We present a primer on multisensory experiences, the different components of this concept, as well as a reflection of its implications for individuals and society. We define multisensory experiences, illustrate how to understand them, elaborate on the role of technology in such experiences, and present the three laws of multisensory experiences, which can guide discussion on their implications. Further, we introduce the case of multisensory experiences in the context of eating and human-food interaction to illustrate how its components operationalize. We expect that this article provides a first point of contact for those interested in multisensory experiences, as well as multisensory experiences in the context of human-food interaction.” (Carlos Velasco and Marianna Obrist, 2021)

More articles on Perspectives on Multisensory Human-Food Interaction.

Food & Eating Design

Or how designers and design thinking could add value to the food industry at large.

“The Food & Eating Design Lab (director Rick Schifferstein) brings together designers and researchers with stakeholders in agriculture, the food industry, the hospitality sector, health professionals and any others who try to improve people’s interactions with their daily foods.

(…) food consumption issues could benefit from innovative thinking and design solutions to face these important everyday challenges. However, the contribution of designers to innovation in the food sector thus far seems to be relatively small. Up to now, the food industry seems quite unfamiliar with the ways in which designers operate and may be unaware of the added value they may have.”

With some interesting projects and publications.

Now We’re Cooking With Lasers

“Researchers at Columbia Engineering have digitised food creation and cooking processes, using 3D printing technology to tailor food shape and texture and lasers of various wavelengths to cook it.” (Source: CACM) – I wonder what that does to the experience of dining.

And What About Taste?


Taste is a very important driver of the eating experience and a complex human phenomenon. It has been a topic of scientific research and philosophical discussion.

Research on Taste

The mission of the Taste Science Laboratory in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University is to elucidate the nature and impact of individual differences in perception – in particular, differences in taste and smell sensitivity – on personality, performance, and preferences.

In its first definition, the American Heritage Dictionary limits the tastes perceived by the taste buds to four: in fact there are at least six in addition to the classic four, there are the taste of fat, and a taste called umami. Umami means delicious in Japanese, and is the word for the savory taste of meat. In this way, our taste buds are designed to tell us about the nutritional qualities of the food we eat: sweet for ripe fruit and carbohydrates, sour for unripe fruit and vitamin C, salty for salt and other minerals, bitter for poisonous plants, umami for protein, and fat for fat!

The second definition, which includes smell and touch, is the one most people have in mind when they talk about the taste of a food; taste, in this sense, means flavor.

Taste and Philosophy

As part of my holiday reading list, I purchased Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosoph by Carolyn Korsmeyer.

“Taste, perhaps the most intimate of the five senses, has traditionally been considered beneath the concern of philosophy, too bound to the body, too personal and idiosyncratic. Yet, in addition to providing physical pleasure, eating and drinking bear symbolic and aesthetic value in human experience, and they continually inspire writers and artists.”

Really looking forward reading it.

Taste versus Flavor and its Classification


In 2004, Dutch restaurant owner and researcher Peter Klosse wrote an interesting thesis, entitled “The Concept of Flavor Styles to Classify Flavors” at the University of Maastricht (NL).

In this thesis, he made a stronge case for a distinction between taste and flavor. His research showed that the taste and richness of flavor are the basis for a classification of flavors.

“Before we can objectively discuss taste, we first need to distinguish between taste and flavor. Taste refers to the human act of tasting. It is an intricate experience which involves all the senses. Flavor, however, refers to products. Food and drink have flavors. Making this distinction is important because this allows us to classify taste as subjective: whether you like the taste of a product is similar to whether you like the color red. Flavor then is an objective notion, making classification and assessment possible.”, wrote Peter Klosse in this column.

In 1991, Peter Klosse founded the Academy for Gastronomy which is a training institute for food professionals, chefs and sommeliers in The Netherlands.

Book: The Taste Culture Reader
(C. Korsmeyer 2005)


In 2005, editor Carolyn Korsmeyer published the book “The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink‘ in the serie ‘Sensory Formations’ (Berg Publishers). Besides taste, this serie looks into other senses such as vision, sound and touch. Not in a technology but in a human perspective.

This book will interest anyone seeking to understand more fully the importance of food and flavor in human experience, said the publisher. So, I read the book and the following quotes resonated:

“(…) the senses usually work together in interrelation to create sense experience; the term that captures this integrative perspective of the senses is ‘intersensoriality’.” (Korsmeyer, p.8)

“The senses are the organs by which man places himself in connection with exterior objects.” (Brillat-Savarin, p.16)

“There is no situation in which sensibility and understanding, united in enjoyment, can be as long continued and as often repeated as a good meal in good company.” (Immanuel Kant, p.214)

“The significant quality of smell and taste is that it is possible to recognize them, but much more diffcult to recall them.” (Sutton, p.313)

“There is a particular strong line between the senses of taste and smell and the emotional dimensions of human experience.” (Lupton, p.19)

“Taste is a sensation of the moment. It cannot be preserved.” (Fisher, p.325)

Looking forward reading another book on taste by the same author: “Making Sense of Taste: Taste, Food, and Philosophy” (Cornell University Press, 1999)

Book: The Physiology of Taste


In his seminal plenary speech at the Information Architecture Summit 2009 in Memphis (USA), Jesse James Garrett stated that in fact information architects and interaction designers are user experience designers. As designers, they focus on the engagement of people with artifacts, platforms and environments (online and offline).

According to Jesse, human engagement involves the mind (cognition), the heart (emotion), the body (action), and the senses (perception). Designers must know how to design for these human capabilities.

It almost goes without saying that besides for user experiences, the senses are also crucial for culinary experiences. Tastes, flavors, and smells are important human perceptions of the qualities of food. But are these inherently the qualities of food or are they only emergent through tasting and eating?

Long ago, the French lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat de Savarin (1755-1826) wrote an important and celebrated book on the human senses in a gastronomic context: “The Physiology of Taste or Transcendental Gastronomy” (1825). The book contains hardly any recipes but many anecdotes and observations covering all aspects of the pleasures of the table. He is considered ‘the greatest food critic ever’.

By reading this book, we gain understanding of our senses. We can use it to what JJG had in mind for user experience designers: facilitating compelling user experiences, never to forget.

Book: Dimensions of the Meal
(H.L. Meiselman 2000)


Food is art and science. Besides chefs performing the culinary arts and crafts, many researchers have looked into food from a scientific perspective.

Under the subtitle “The Science, Culture, Business, and Art of Eating“, author Herbert L. Meiselman (Senior Research Scientists at the U.S. Army Natick Research Development and Engineering Center) has collected an interesting set of scientific essays on The Meal. The chapters of the book are grouped into parts such as ‘Definitions of the Meal’, ‘The Meal and Cuisine’, ‘The Meal and Culture’, and ‘Designing and Producing Meals’.

Although the book originally costs a fair amount, it is currently available at a reasonable 20 dollars at Amazon.

From the introduction: “The objective of this book is to appreciate the complexity of meals; to see the psychological, physiological, cultural, nutricial, biological, sensory, food service/catering, and other business aspects of meals; and to see the interdisciplinary nature of understanding meals; meals are complex, but understanding meals and addressing meals in the practical world requires a more complex view of the meal.”

Book: Kitchens (G.A. Fine 2008)


Taking the restaurant as a metaphor for delivering compelling user experiences means being interested in the backstage as well as the frontstage. Backstage work in the restaurant (a.k.a. the kitchen) has been the ethnographic subject of the American sociologist Gary Alan Fine (1950). He published his findings in “Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work“.

About the book: “Kitchens takes us into the robust, overheated, backstage world of the contemporary restaurant. In this rich, often surprising portrait of the real lives of kitchen workers, Gary Alan Fine brings their experiences, challenges, and satisfactions to colorful life. A new preface updates this riveting exploration of how restaurants actually work, both individually and as part of a larger culinary culture.”

The day begins slowly. Entering an empty, clean kitchen on a cool summer morning, one has little sense of the blistering tornado of action to come.