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Crossmodal correspondences: Looking for links between sound symbolism and synaesthesia and their application to sensory marketing

Professor Charles Spence, University of Oxford

Wednesday 25 May 2011, 1600-1700
Lecture Theatre 1, Fylde College

Professor Charles Spence Professor Charles Spence

In many everyday situations, our senses are bombarded by numerous different unisensory signals at any given time. In order to gain the most veridical, and least variable, estimate of environmental stimuli/properties, we need to combine the individual noisy unisensory perceptual estimates that refer to the same object, while keeping those estimates belonging to different objects or events separate. How, though, does the brain 'know' which stimuli to combine?

Traditionally, researchers interested in the crossmodal binding problem have focused on the role that spatial and temporal factors play in modulating multisensory integration. However, crossmodal correspondences between various unisensory features (such as between auditory pitch and visual size) may provide yet another important means of constraining the crossmodal binding problem. A large body of research now shows that people exhibit consistent crossmodal correspondences between many stimulus features in different sensory modalities.

In this lecture, Professor Charles Spence will try and convince you crossmodal correspondences need to be considered alongside semantic and spatiotemporal congruency, among the key constraints that help our brains to predict what is 'out there' in the world around us and solve the crossmodal binding problem.

Professor Spence will also look at the relationship between crossmodal correspondences and sound symbolism, and at the thorny question of whether crossmodal correspondences should be thought of as in any way synaesthetic. Finally, I will highlight some of the intriguing marketing applications that are now starting to emerge from research on crossmodal correspondences in the design of everything from the labels of water bottles through to the music you listen to while drinking your Starbucks coffee in the morning.

Professor Charles Spence

Professor Charles Spence is the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University. He is interested in how people perceive the world around them. In particular, how our brains manage to process the information from each of our different senses (such as smell, taste, sight, hearing, and touch) to form the extraordinarily rich multisensory experiences that fill our daily lives. His research focuses on how a better understanding of the human mind will lead to the better design of multisensory foods, products, interfaces, and environments in the future. His research calls for a radical new way of examining and understanding the senses that has major implications for the way in which we design everything from household products to mobile phones, and from the food we eat to the places in which we work and live.

Over the years, Charles has consulted for a number of multinational companies advising on various aspects of multisensory design, packaging, and branding. He has also conducted research on human-computer interaction issues on the Crew Work Station on the European Space Shuttle. Charles and his group are currently working on problems associated with the design of foods that maximally stimulate the senses (together with Heston Blumenthal, chef of The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray). His group also has a very active line of research on the design of auditory, tactile, and multisensory warning signals for drivers and other interface operators (together with Toyota). Charles is also interested in the effect of the indoor environment on mood, well-being, and performance (together with ICI).

Charles has published more than 350 articles in top-flight scientific journals over the last 15 years. Charles has been awarded the 10th Experimental Psychology Society Prize, the British Psychology Society: Cognitive Section Award, the Paul Bertelson Award, recognizing him as the young European Cognitive Psychologist of the Year, and, most recently, the prestigious Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany, not to mention the 2008 IG Nobel prize for nutrition, for his groundbreaking work on the 'sonic crisp'!