By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The senses of taste and smell almost always work together in daily life. Although they’re taught as separate sensory experiences, nothing could be further from the truth. A new lickable TV screen may test this phenomenon.
It’s said that our perception of flavor is one of the most multimodal sensory experiences our brain can have. Taste and smell work together for the basics of survival, as well as for delightful culinary adventures. When it comes to dining, sight and touch also enter the equation—which is obvious from common phrases like “That looks appetizing” and “This dish has great texture.”
A Meiji University professor is testing the limits of our sense of taste with a new invention: a lickable TV screen that imitates familiar food flavors. Homei Miyashita’s creation, Taste the TV, contains 10 spray canisters that spray in varying combinations onto a hygienic film that rolls down over the TV screen. Miyashita hopes that flavors from around the world can be downloaded and enjoyed, much like music.
Can such a thing be possible? It depends on the rich world that comes from the senses of taste and olfaction. In his video series Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception, Dr. Peter M. Vishton, Associate Professor of Psychology at William and Mary, explains how the two senses overlap and cooperate.
The Snozzberries Taste like Snozzberries
“Taste works very much like olfaction, except with many, many fewer types of receptors,” Dr. Vishton said. “Remember that there are five receptor types here: bitter, sour, salty, sweet, and the newly discovered umami. All of these receptor types are present throughout the tongue; they aren’t localized to only particular places on the tongue as had been erroneously believed.”
According to Dr. Vishton, our perception of tastes appears to be based on a pattern of responses across several of these receptor types at once. In other words, our brain doesn’t have a specific neuron for tomato soup; it knows the flavor of tomato soup based on the combinations of receptors that the soup activates. Again, our sense of smell is vital to our sense of taste.
“The taste receptors connect near many of the same brain areas as do those associated with olfaction,” he said. “The receptors make one subcortical synapse in the thalamus, before projecting into the cortex itself.”
Any time that we inhale through our nose, we experience a sensation called “orthonasal olfaction.” Chemicals from the world around us are pulled into the nose and onto a membranous tissue called the olfactory epithelium. Information about those chemicals are then transmitted to the brain. There’s another opening in our olfactory tract that’s in the throat, which we use while eating food. This is called retronasal olfaction.
“Most of our experience of taste takes place through orthonasal olfaction,” Dr. Vishton said. “Without the air flowing through your nose—without that orthonasal olfaction—food can be pretty bland and boring. Taste works in concert with olfaction, blending with it so seamlessly that we can’t actually tell where smell ends and taste begins.”
If Professor Miyashita’s lickable TV takes off, taste may begin and end with commercial breaks.