Sense of Emotion

Magnet interviews leading neuroscientist Dr Jack Lewis

Jack Lewis

Why do different sensory stimulants affect people in different ways?

Everyone’s brain has experienced different things, so as people progress though their life from childhood to adulthood the brain wires itself together according to their experiences. Things that are experienced frequently have a bigger influence than those that are experienced infrequently. Everyone’s batch of emotional sensory experiences are different and it is these that have the most power in forming the way our brain wires up, and therefore responds to things in the outside world. This is why everyone responds differently, because the type of music that evokes memories of my childhood will be very different from the type of music that evokes memories of your childhood.

It is the same with smells, textures and all of our senses: we have unique experiences of the world and of our sensory experiences.

By the time we reach adulthood we have experienced different things a different number of times and these memories evoke different sensory experiences from person to person.

Why does the home evoke such a strong sensory experience?

The home is the place where so many of our memories are experienced. It is the place where we feel safe and secure, where we drop our guard. In the living room for example, you’ve got lots of strong visual and acoustic stimuli coming out of your TV. Your radio or sound system is a device that allows you to select and thereby develop a taste for different types of programmes and music.

A lot of our senses are stimulated in the home, it is the place where we kick off our shoes and walk around barefoot, awakening our touch senses. The kitchen is a key room where everything is simultaneously stimulated – especially smell and taste.

How can you introduce sensory stimulants into the home to improve your wellbeing?

Well, a lot of the sensory stimulants that improve wellbeing tend to be related to the natural world but our homes tend to insulate us from this world. So to improve your well-being it’s a good idea to do things like introducing aromas into the home, such as fresh flowers in a vase. Some people do it and some don’t, however the smell of nature can be key in improving your mood. Often the best thing you can do is get out of the house altogether and go for a walk around the park or the countryside whenever possible. If you are trying to recreate these natural experiences in the home then flowers are a good option as well as pieces of art or music.

The one thing about visual art is that quite often you only really notice it for the first few weeks after you have put it up, so you should trick your senses by moving these pieces around or by having a different set of images that you rotate around your home. Doing this is in effect like curating your own art show in order to keep your brain on its toes because you are giving it novel experiences on a more regular basis. Don’t just hang up a painting and leave it there for decades – mix it up to encourage and stimulate your senses.

Why is the kitchen the perfect place to awaken your senses?

All of the senses are stimulated simultaneously in the kitchen. You have the sight of food, the smells, the aromas coming in through your nostrils, and the taste when you eat something. Eating food is very much about the tactile experience of feeling the textures in your mouth, this is a huge part of what we almost colloquially call the sense of taste. Strictly speaking taste is just the senses that come in through the tongue, and there’s only 5 or maybe 6, some would argue, possible experiences that come in just though the tongue, so the sense of smell and touch inside the mouth is vastly underrated. I did an experiment the other day on my TV series where we blindfolded people, robbing them of their sense of vision as well as their sense of smell, and then gave them a raw onion to eat (also asking them to use a glove so they couldn’t feel the onion). They thought it was an apple, until we took the peg off their nose. Even when we only robbed them of their sense of vision they still couldn’t tell what it was, which shows the power that vision has in dominating our experience of taste. When you are hungry, you eat, you feel pleasure. Hunger was invented, biologically speaking to encourage us to seek out food to nourish us and give us energy to survive. Eating when we are hungry invariably gives us a sense of pleasure and as the kitchen is the place where we experience this time and time again, we have positive associations with this – hence the parties in the kitchen!

What’s the one thing everyone should have in their kitchen to stimulate their senses?

That’s an interesting one, I think a brilliant idea is spices. Spices and herbs. Although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to have a spice rack, you don’t always have to use it in your cooking. Leaving the lid off one of the jars from time to time is a great way of evoking your senses through scent, and often these aromas can jolt memories of your childhood.

Usually when our memories are jolted, they come from periods of life called the reminiscent bump which occurs between the age of 15-30. The sense of smell is linked to this because it’s plugged directly into the limbic system, the emotional memory part of the brain, rather than being re-routed through other brain areas first, as with the other senses. This means that it’s very powerful in evoking memories of childhood before the age of 10, and there’s no other sense that can stimulate it in quite the same way.

Many would also suggest freshly ground coffee, to actually grind your own beans, so coffee lovers might wish to do that to evoke their sense of smell. There’s something about actually turning the handle of an old fashioned coffee mill, where you can feel the beans crunching and the aromas are always much more powerful when it’s freshly ground, so there you go - two for the price of one!