Charles Spence: The science of food and memories

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13 min readApr 8, 2021

The extraordinarily rich multisensory experiences that fill our daily lives depend upon the way our brains process information from each of our different senses (smell, taste, sight, hearing, and touch). Experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford and author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, Charles Spence has made this phenomena his life’s work. He is specialised in how information is received across our different senses. As both a university professor, author and multisensory design consultant working for a vast range of clients including the European Space Agency, he investigates problems associated with the design of foods that maximally stimulate the senses. I had the privilege to talk with him about strawberries from my grandma’s garden, Madeleine de Proust, umami and more.

Professor Charles Spence in his experimental psychology lab at the University of Oxford. Photo by Sam Frost

Is food art, science, or a necessity?

All three of them. Certainly a necessity, a large part of our brains are involved with foraging and predicting what is nutritious and energy-dense around us, that always has been essential. I firmly believe that it can be studied scientifically too. We have had a little over 30 years of science in the kitchen, molecular gastronomy and Harold McGee, modernist cuisine… It’s taking us to new places but it’s all about ingredients, preparation, and machines. Gastrophysics is all about taking the scientific approach from the kitchen into the dining room. Science is starting to be a part of the picture. And art too, I have to say. Some chefs consider themselves as artists or are considered as artists by others. Thinking about why chefs should not be considered as artists… What do they do differently from painters or composers? Probably they have good grounds, some of them at least. You need that intuitive artistic approach for both science and art.

I’m thinking about strawberries from my grandma’s garden. I used to eat them from the bushes when I was a kid. I didn’t wash them, just ate them straight… That’s an incomparable food memory I’ll have for my whole life, no matter how many amazing strawberries I’ve had. What is Madeleine de Proust and do we all have it in some way?

The type of food might vary… David Sutton wrote an entire book on the memory of Greek foods from oats to peaches, you are the first strawberry one I’ve met. There is a lot going on. On the one hand, it might be about the overreliance on selective fruit and vegetable breeding that look good on the shelves and are resistant to bruising, but which have lost their flavour. I would also say that it’s about context too. Seafood undoubtedly tastes better by the seaside and the strawberries taste better from the bush in nature, so that’s part of it too. And this context affects us. I also believe that picking the strawberries yourself means that you are somehow involved in the process, and that is probably important too, so it’s the freshest it can be and involves you into the process, finding the food for yourself also adds the value. Even if you could get exactly the same strawberry in the store, the experience would be different because of the emotion and memories, the attachment that you had. That’s why it’s very hard, if not impossible, to recapture those mystical moments of food pleasure.

In gastrophysics, you mention the role of the environment in how we appreciate and experience food. Would you say that if we brought simple tacos from Mexico city streets to a fine dining spot in London with white napkins the experience would be different and people would appreciate them less or more?

So the experience would be different, definitely. This is the experiment that I wanted to do, to take Michelin-star cuisine and serve it in a takeaway van or a school canteen. Or serve street food in a fine dining restaurant. I think the process is a very important part of the story and the experience. People think that paying a lot of money for fancy meals makes for a better experience, like they could have in a fancy restaurant. I also think that there is growing interest in gastrotourism, and people trying to find authentic food, like getting to Mexico city and finding a recommended trip advisor place for your taco. You build an expectation of authenticity that fancy restaurants can’t capture, probably. The more effort involved in getting to taste that esoteric food experience, the better it often tastes.

You have mentioned now and in your book that we all have our Madeleine de Proust, but for example, some chefs, especially the famous ones are like musicians or artists, they create their iconic dishes that they are known for. For example, Paul Bocuse for his truffle soup or some of the iconic dishes Heston Blumenthal is known for… What is the secret of creating these dishes that remain in one’s memory? There are so many chefs who are trying to do their best but it never clicks. Maybe it’s kind of collective Madeleine de Proust?

I would say that the Proust moment and the example with the strawberry are a bit different. The strawberry is about the taste, the food, the flavour. While the Proustian moment is all about flavour as a vehicle for recollection. It’s not about tea or a biscuit. There are some restaurants where the chefs are rotating, there is no signature dish, there is nothing to go back for, not one thing that you are known for, no constant dish that they are known for, like the mainstream or the high-end restaurants. So there’s no security, or certainty, or confidence from the diners. Not that the chefs will necessarily know that what they have just created, is going to be their signature dish. They will not necessarily say “wow, now we’ve done it, we’ve created it! This is going to be the one”. More likely, it will be an accident, they will put it in a whole new menu. And I’m just thinking that you haven’t finished “Heston Blumenthal is known for…”, one of his most famous dishes is the “Sound of the Sea”, a recollection of being around that creation… There was no sense that it was going to be the famous dish, it was, I think, a surprise for everyone how much it resonated with diners. It might be what strikes at the moment the most, with a fabulous taste, but on the memory side maybe our mind tricks us, which dish sticks in the memory, associated with the chef. I think this question is not answered yet, you can’t predict that. Maybe at some point in the future, but not now.

You said that expectations are what influence our appreciation of food the most. Could you explain this?

This comes from psychology and neuroscience. These days many of the cognitive neuroscientists believe that our brain is a prediction engine, making models of the world… We are living in a world where there are a lot of expectations, our brain decides what’s inside there and just periodically checks what it predicted was really true. I think that the general claim of the brain as a prediction engine can also be extended to food. Our brain suggests, before we put something in our mouth, what it’s going to taste like, if you will like it, how expensive, how organic, and everything else… And very often will not pay attention to the taste, you are distracted by whatever else. If the actual taste is close enough to your prediction. We live in a world with lots of predictions. That’s why I say that setting the right expectations is so important. Because if what you put in your mouth is different to what you expect it’s potentially shocking and can be bad. Our mouth is the last point to check that something isn’t poisonous. To make expectation slightly better, naming, description and other anticipatory stuff can be so important too.

Speaking about food critics, or foodies or those who just dine often. Do you think food taste is acquired or inherited? As an example, there are millions of people who admire Japanese cuisine around the world without ever going there, without living or been born there and probably will never go to Japan.

When we say our taste in food is acquired, that’s ambiguous. Literally do we mean the taste or the flavour, or do we mean aesthetic taste? I think most of our experience of taste and our response to flavour foods is predominantly aesthetic. Let’s assume that when you are born, you like sweet and umami because these are the dominant tastes of amniotic fluid and breast milk, or so I am told. All the smells (or flavours), the meaty, the floral, all the unusual textures of some Japanese foods, we have to learn to like them. Somethings will be easier to like than others. There is a lot of learning, it mostly happens simply without our necessarily being aware. Some tastes are paired with something good we learned to like. The smell of vanilla or a caramel, because it’s paired with sugar, coffee comes to smell good because it’s paired with caffeine. So it’s a matter of learning. And when it comes to Japanese food, it depends what history thinks about it, and where the people live, because here in the UK, 20 years ago people were not eating raw fish, sushi was not widely accepted. And till today I’m sure there are plenty of people who dislike Japanese chicken feet or natto, or other foods which are served in Japanese restaurants outside of Japan and people would struggle with it.

I think for Japanese or other cuisines that we have to learn to like the tastes, we have to learn to become familiar through exposure, pairing with good (or at least rewarding) stuff. To overcome the disgust and build familiarity and potentially increase our liking, and thereafter our consumption. We did that for lobsters and crustaceans some hundreds of years ago.

Do you think umami is the mother of all tastes?

I would not say that it’s a mother of all tastes. Many Westerners are still so unsure of what exactly it is. There is no mental concept of it for them. So I’m ambiguous, that’s why people were not speaking about it in the UK, probably they have heard of it now… But they are still not quite sure what it is. They still don’t get it, it doesn’t exist in Westerners’ consciousness as a basic taste, it’s a fifth taste which comes out after, it doesn’t feel that it is essential. Others would say that the first taste experiences we have is with breast milk (and/or amniotic fluid), that is umami and sweetness, so that is the mother of all tastes. Does it even taste at all? Interestingly unlike the others, some people call it a flavour, not a taste. Would your taste receptors identify it for umami? It fixes the definition of the basic taste and somehow umami is not pleasant unless it has an aroma with it. It kind of only comes alive as a flavour.

If you ask a Japanese chef, or a Japanese person who loves food, for them umami is really the secret of Japanese cuisine. And they all say it’s dashi…

I would say it’s only one of the secrets of Japanese cuisine, from the outside at least. Because the new world’s cuisine was inspired by Japanese stuff, it wasn’t umami that radically transformed western cuisine with the emergence of nouvelle cuisine, it was as much presentation, not to mention the sauces… Some Japanese chefs make broth where umami is a thing, where it is hard to imagine any western chefs making a pure expression of sweet, sour, salty or bitter, it would have no place. Pure taste, in the latter sense, is boring. Where a pure expression of umami is a challenge for a chef or will mark as a good chef if they can. But there is a talk of kokumi as well, whether the mother of all is umami plus kokumi, or just kokumi…?

I want to go back a bit to the foodies phenomena, which you talked about in your book. When I started blogging, in 2004, I was taking pictures of food, that was just the beginning. And now, 16 years later, anyone can be a blogger and take pictures of food. It’s like part of your eating experience whatever you eat. Why do you think it is so important to take pictures of food?

In general, I have never taken a picture of food in my life. But I see it as a common thing. On one hand, I think taking and showing pictures it’s sort of a millennial experimental thing, capturing and sharing experiences. Partly it is about memory, even the act of taking a picture, even if you will never look at it again, it helps to remember it, some people doing it for that reason. Especially when the tasting menus are becoming more common, because it’s hard to recall what you had. And partly I think that our brains are involved in finding images attractive, the brain will process the scene if there is anything energy-dense in it, pay attention to it, and if you are hungry, there is nothing better than getting your brain more excited. Excited about your favourite food. That’s why the pictures of food are attention capturing and powerful, it’s like a response to that.

And so maybe I worry a bit about sort of anorexia and bulimia angle taking pictures of pleasure without having to eat. People taking pictures instead of actually consuming.

I was reading recently about “Blue food”, it is the food which appears nowhere, just in the pictures. Dishes are created only for eye-appeal. And, in the past, the food that captured our attention was that which was the most energy-dense, which is the most liked. And now it’s not about that anymore, it’s about eye-catching, symmetrical dishes, unusual colours, rainbow coloured dishes, they go to extremes, while recognizing that no one will likely ever eat the product. But the trend looks like it’s still growing.

Do you think that foodies’ brains work differently? Because some people live to eat, some people eat to live. Do you think our brains are different?

Certainly could be. There are undoubtedly some individual cases when people have gourmand syndrome, those individuals who never care about food at all during their life, and following a very specific type of brain damage, they suddenly can’t stop talking and thinking about food. So you can’t switch people.

About the differences between eating to live and living to eat… There are no scientific studies. It’s more an intellectual decision, than a sensory decision, maybe supertasters are different from non-tasters. Just differences between people. Just different prioritization, different senses.

What do you think is the future of eating? Especially after these extraordinary times for all of us.

My suspicion is that we may currently be looking at the end of experimental cuisine, at least for a while. That is, the exploration of new food will take a back seat. And instead we will go for comfort eating, familiar foods, and nostalgia. I see places like Noma selling burgers and beer. I think that in some cases, the pandemic has accelerated trends which were already occurring: increasing the home delivery of food, and to deliver high-end food, which is also a very interesting area. In London, you can get Michelin-starred food delivered directly to your door.

For the future, I imagine that there will be more interest in technology for dining tables, either through what Covid accelerated that we like to eat alone, which started even before Covid. So digital ability will see how technology can enhance social experiences to dine together over Skype or Zoom, over phones or tablets, virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) dining. I hope it’s for a short term, but I’m sure that will not be the case. I don’t think 3D food printing will ever really take off, maybe meals in the pills … I think we will not care how the food looks, Instagrammability will never become extinct, it’s hard to see that we go back to the lack of attention to eye-appeal from the days before nouvelle cuisine.

Could you share with us some exciting work you are doing in Oxford, in the food field?

At the moment, I’m working more and more on food history. Working on the colours of food, how it affects us, the symbolic meanings of it. Blue, black and white meals. We are interested in food magic, can we eat magic? It’s an interesting question, I think, because people love magic and food but they never put them together, they put it side by side in fancy restaurants or in so-called Chicago bar magic, but when you put food in your mouth the magic can happen. Also about magic from the gastrophysics side, we can make food sweeter than it is, we can moderate the experiences that we all are familiar with. But I firmly believe that it would be nice to be able to give people an extraordinary food experience, and the extraordinary thing can be that the dish makes the people cry, why do food experiences make them cry? It could be food experience, it could be magic, it could be extraordinary never-before experienced flavours, or it could be flavour-changing food. We try to look into that, we use visual illusions. And a lot of other stuff.

What are your next projects and books?

A new version of the book “Perfect meal” which was first published back in 2014, I have stuff for updating that for 2021. With a publisher of “Gastrophysics” — Penguin, the book which is coming out next month is “Sensehacking” is around our senses in everyday life. And, for me, it is a lot to do with food, the lighting, the experience, the music, naming, the pricing, the branding… It’s about hacking the senses in everyday life, from home to the garden, to the office, to the gym…

Do you have your Madeleine de Proust?

Probably it would be baked tomato pasta arrabiata. I remember it from my youth. It was before fresh parmesan had been discovered, at least by my family… Now, I like to make a modified version of it, spicier. It’s a reference to how much I remember that Sunday lunch meal where it would always have been served. Never quite taste the same again, but I’m not sure if I wanted to. I like the emotional connections to it.

I guess Madeleine de Proust is not about the theatre, not about luxury, but about our memories.

Proust’s Madeleine involves food but is not only about food.

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