Scents & Sensibility

From Story Act 1, 2017

The sensory enjoyment of music and theatre is not unlike our enjoyment of food and wine – we all have different tastes. This is largely due to how we’ve been brought up and what we’ve been exposed to, and there is a physiological element that plays a role. Dr Heather Smyth looks at whether there might be a link between what we like to eat, and what types of music or live performance we prefer?

When we drink a fine wine, our senses perceive the various components of texture, aroma, taste and mouthfeel. Receptors, on our taste buds and olfactory bulb, send a complex array of messages to our brain which are simultaneously perceived. Our brain interprets these messages as wine flavour and determines if we like the sensation, or if it does not meet our taste.

Wine flavour arises from many hundreds of individual compounds that work in combination to create the sensory experience of wine. Like instruments in a symphony orchestra, all components must be present at just the right level and playing in tune with one another. If one wine component is missing, the flavour can be lacking and hollow. If another component is present at very high levels, it can cause an off-note in the wine.

Interestingly, the part of our brain that interprets food and wine aroma is also responsible for functions such as emotion, behaviour and the formation of memories. Different smells often remind us of a time or place, and can influence our mood and emotions. This certainly helps to explain emotional eating!

With performance, we are often 'in the mood' for one style or another. Depending on how we feel we might enjoy some jazz or prefer something a little more upbeat. It’s also true that for many, if we’re not in the right mood for a certain style of performance it can be completely irritating!

So, is there a food or wine style and flavour that can put us in the right emotional state for one style of performance or other? ‘Dinner and a show’ goes hand-in-hand, but the link between what we’ve just eaten and how much we enjoyed the show could be stronger than we realise.

The science of understanding links between sensorial experiences, emotions and behaviours is still in its infancy. Typically, simple flavours have been recognised for their mood-altering abilities. Peppermint is known to increase alertness while rosemary increases calmness and contentment. The emotive influence of complex flavour combinations appreciated in whole foods like a Grenache wine, or a Thai curry, is still far from understood.

Nevertheless, next time you enjoy a live performance, it may be worth paying closer attention to how your Hawaiian pizza made you feel about the comedy, or how your chicken cassoulet influenced your response to the ballet.

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Heather Smyth

Dr Heather Smyth is a flavour chemist and sensory scientist who has been working with premium food and beverage products for more than 15 years. Dr Smyth’s expertise is in understanding how food composition relates to the sensory experience and consumer enjoyment of food. She has a background in wine flavour chemistry and extensive experience in seafood, wine and horticultural products such as coffee and tropical fruits. She currently works as a Senior Research Fellow for the University of Queensland as part of the Queensland Alliance of Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) Institute.