Smell up and taste the environment

I came across this piece on how a contrived multisensory environment influences perception, in this case of whisky. Three different multisensoriums were created for one whisky.

Each room had a unique visual appearance, soundscape, fragrance, and feel which was designed to emphasize a different attribute of the whisky; its grassiness, sweetness, or woodiness…The room that was designed to emphasise the ‘grassiness’ of the whisky had a turf floor and a soundscape recorded in a summer meadow (which included sheep ‘baa-ing’ in the background). This contrasted to the other rooms, such as the one that was designed to emphasis ‘woodiness’, which had a fragrance of cedarwood and tonka bean and a soundscape that included the sound of creaking timbers, log fires, and wood instruments.

The senses used to direct perception would resonate cross culturally–even if a particular stimulant (e.g., tonke bean odor, sheep) is unfamiliar, the others likely will evoke the desired response.

The Japanese have been playing with smell in the work environment for some time, creating temporal smellscapes that promote mental faculties and mitigate behaviors that might interfere with work (e.g., an odor to counteract sleepiness after lunch). Industrial designers work with clients to create brands that promote specific values (wealth,  modernity, humbleness, etc) that are meant to resonate with the target audience of the client (i.e., the clients clients).

Taken to an extreme (possible Portlandia spoof), a bar would have to have drink-specific seating. But, this study explores the idea that our perceptions (and the associations formed with them) are more than simply personal preference. In the wrong environment, a drink (or food, film, music etc) might not be perceived the same as previous experiences. If this happens enough times and the environmental influence is subtle, you might not know why you ‘went off’ something. It also adds a little depth to why certain drinks are preferred in certain environments (rail gin or PBR in a dive bar versus champagne at a penthouse rooftop cocktail party). The same could go for any sensual input–an art film at a Regal or Cinemark versus an old Roxy, punk rock in the Bowery versus Barneys.


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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