On the shapes of flavours: A review of four hypotheses

Charles Spence, Ophelia Deroy

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12775/ths-2013-0011


Does it make sense to talk about a round wine, or a sharp taste? Many chefs and wine writers certainly seem to think that it does. The historical precedent of ‘the man who tasted shapes’, as well as recent claims that the chemical senses could present us with forms of universal synaesthesia (Stevenson and Tomiczek 2007), make it natural to wonder whether there might not be a widespread form of synaesthesia underlying these surprising reports. Alternatively, however, they might instead reflect nothing more than the metaphorical use of language (cf. White 2008). Intriguingly, a new field of experimental research is now starting to demonstrate many examples where tastes, aromas, flavours, and the oral-somatosensory attributes of foods and beverages are reliably matched to particular shapes. These crossmodal matches are thus both ubiquitous and robust across the general population, or at least within the cultures in which they have been tested to date. After discussing a number of these examples of the crossmodal matching of shape (or shape attributes such as angularity) to food and drink stimuli, we argue that the category of crossmodal correspondences best captures the core of the phenomenon that is at stake. What is more, they may help to explain why the use of such cross-sensory pairings by chefs, food companies, marketers, and designers can be particularly effective. The focus on this specific type of cross-sensory matching demonstrates that it is a much more robust empirical phenomenon than it might at first seem, both because of its extensive use out there in the marketplace, and also because of the theoretical issues it raises about the differences between several plausible alternative explanations of crossmodal associations.


shapes; taste; aroma; flavour; oral-somatosensory; cross-modal

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