Does the smell of bacon affect the meaning of a word?

A new study is so fascinating that we immediately wondered how it would apply to words. You, of course, are our greatest resource for insight. After you read about the experiment, help us think about how word meanings change depending on what else is going on around you.

Researchers at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory are investigating how our different senses impact each other, and they recently conducted a trial to learn how sound affects taste.

(What is this sensory confusion technically called? Synesthesia. Read more about the peculiar sensations here.)

The test subjects were given pieces of toffee. First, when they ate the toffee, low-pitched music played in headphones. Then, they ate another piece of the same toffee while high-pitched tones played. The first bite tasted more savory to the participants, and the second bite tasted sweeter.

Sounds can cue other sensory responses. As eminent psychologist Ivan Pavlov proved a century ago, bodily responses can be triggered by certain cues, what he called the “conditioned reflex”. In his pivotal experiment, he proved that if you play a bell before a dog eats, the dog will associate the sound of a bell with food. In the future, if you play a bell and do not show the dog food, the dog will salivate as if food were present.

In the study with the toffee, it is unclear if the reaction is innate, or if we somehow learn to associate high-pitched sounds with sweet tastes. The study was conducted with the chefs from The Fat Duck, a famous high-end restaurant in London. What if a restaurant played lower pitched music during the main course and higher pitched music during dessert? Could that impact our dining experience?

What do we call words that mimic how they sound? Learn about a silent bag of chips that proved the rule here.

Do you think high-pitched tones make you think of sweeter flavors? Do smells, music, or other sensations affect how you understand what you read or hear? Let us know and share examples from your life!