Sensory overload

We all have experienced it – the one, divine dinner that was so satisfying that you can recall each delectable bite for years to come. You may remember how wonderful it tasted, but what were all your other senses doing?

Janice Wang, one of our featured artists at the upcoming Future Creativity Gala, is an expert on cognitive psychology in the dining room. We were lucky enough to talk to her about her research as she prepares to play with our senses!

Janice Wang_in lab

Janice Wang, Courtesy photos

Q: Can you tell us about the research you are doing at the MIT Media Lab?

A: I study multi-sensory eating experiences. In other words, I’m interested in how different senses interact with each other, and what that means when you add food to the equation. Eating is not just about the food, there’s a complex psychological process going on behind the scenes that will change your attitude towards food and how you taste it. For example, the color of the food, the sounds you hear, the temperature of the room, the big fight you just had with your spouse – all these can affect the way you perceive food.

Vaporizer mousse

Vaporizer mousse

Q: What is the MIT Media Lab and what does it mean to be a part of Kevin Slavin’s Playful Systems group?

A: The MIT Media Lab is like a big playground that combines science, art and technology to explore ways to improve people’s lives. We have groups ranging from neurobiology to emotional robots to augmented reality interfaces. In Kevin’s group, we look at how to change people’s perspectives about how things work. For example, a lot of people think smart phones and TVs are evil because it removes us from the social atmosphere of a meal; I try to embrace technology as a way to enhance the sensory experience of eating, not to distract from it.

Q: What is your favorite experiment you’ve done?

A: I designed an emotion dinner, where each course came with its own emotion pairing in the form of music and lighting. I wanted to see how participants rate the food and how the social dynamic around the table changes with different moods.

Hello Soup

Hello Soup

Q: What is one of the most interesting results you’ve found so far?

A: Music has a significant effect on participants’ food pleasantness ratings.

Q: How did you develop an interest in this field?

A: I’ve always been interested in food but I was doing music psychology research at the lab. Then I had dinner at Alinea in Chicago, and the meal was so inspiring it changed my research agenda. I had this moment of “so this is how you can play with food” and the ideas started flooding in.

Q: What role will you play at PEM’s Gala this year?

A: I will be designing an installation for the Gala that focuses on how the mind can shape what you eat and drink.

Q: How does your research fit in to PEM gala theme of Future Creativity?

A: I look at how we can think about the eating experience in a different way, so that it’s not just about “what’s for dinner?” Instead, it’s about how can I shape the dining experience. I believe food preparation and service is an art, and designing the sensory, experiential aspect of eating is a creative endeavor.


Surprise Cocktail

Q: Can you give us a teaser of the experiments you’ll bring to PEM — or is that a secret?

A: Hmmm… All I can say is, keep an open mind and trust your senses.


One Comment

  1. Barbara Brady says:

    Wonderful way to explore the layers of synapses that can be tapped in processes such as these, and the end effects of these connections. It occurs to me that much of what you are studying and exploring is applicable beyond the perception and impact of experiences eating, but could also be applied to other processes such as learning. It’s fascinating to think of the layers that this could add, for example, to the discussion of multisensory/multidisciplinary learning, especially at early ages.

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