Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen – cognition, concepts and the chemical senses


Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, the Netherlands
Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands

Research Oversight: Prof. Asifa Majid
Visiting Scholar (MPI) & Lecture (Radboud University): Ryan Frederick Bromley, Canada & Poland


The idea behind including cognitive studies and psycholinguistics in the research development of this PhD investigation is that I needed a bridge to connect the physiological capacity of the chemical senses to the necessity for art to communicate in a 'language' of concepts. If it is the case that the chemical senses are unable to communicate abstract concepts then it would be fair to say that the chemical senses offer nothing more than a non-critical aesthetic accompaniment to art; the classical arguments levied against the chemical senses would be found to be correct. However, if the chemical senses were found to be able to communicate, or even enrich the conceptual capacity of works of contemporary art, then the inclusion of theses senses will be merited and a new direction in art will have been opened for continued discourse. In order to make this determination, I needed to link perception by way of the chemical senses to cognition and provide suitable examples. In order to achieve this, I determined to create case-study investigations that integrated knowledge from the disciplines of psycholinguistics, cognitive studies and philosophy, where the case studies would either prove or disprove the thesis: the chemical senses are able to communicate complex conceptual ideas in a manner suitable for art practice.  I reached out to Professor Asifa Majid because her published work was most consequential for the aims of this research investigation, where her research "investigates the nature of categories and concepts in language, in non-linguistic perception and cognition, and the relationship between them."          

Research Description

During a visit to the Netherlands, my research took the form of desk-based research with interviews with Prof. Majid. During the course of my research, I also did a presentation of my research for interested researchers in the Department for Cognitive Studies in Radboud University, where Prof. Majid is also affiliated. 

The research materials surrounding my investigations into the cognitive processing of stimuli perceived by the chemical senses was the most challenging of all my research data. These challenges were the result of several factors: firstly, the depth of knowledge required to enter into a mature conversation in cognitive science is vast and multidisciplinary - I very often felt out of my depth. Secondly, the area that I was investigating, conceptual processes related to the chemical senses and their cognitive importance, is a largely uncharted area in psycholinguistics and formal literature is limited. As a result, I was drawing upon research materials from a very broad intersection of disciplines in order to arrive at any sort of conclusions. In particular, the philosophical discourse in the area of the nature of concepts and the construction of ideas was particularly interesting for me, however, with at least three major competing theories vying for dominance it was easy to get lost in the discourse but difficult to formulate conclusions. Finally, in the absence of foundational knowledge, a shortage of formal data, and a very muddy playing field, the creation of a functional model for case studies became an additional concern. If I were to move into the lofty depths of quantitative data collection (as may have been expected by researchers of cognitive studies) I could very easily have lost focus on my principle research aims. After frustrating sessions of introspection, I decided to take a more exploratory approach to the material; opting instead to conduct a qualitative research survey that might unearth questions and open new directions that could be pursued by other, more capable researchers in this field.     


The case studies investigations that I conducted included four of the most respected restaurants in the world, each offering a different approach to gastronomy that I felt possessed promise for conceptual consideration. In Denmark, I decided to conduct my research investigations with the Nordic Food Lab, the research and development body behind Noma restaurant, the most highly rated restaurant in the world. The Nordic Food Lab was a good choice because of the fact that its Director, Michael Bom Frøst, is also an Associate Professor in Sensory Science at University of Copenhagen, where much of his work has focused on cognitive processes of sensory data in restaurants, with an emphasis on contemporary gastronomy. The aim of the research in Denmark was to determine the communicability of cultural identity by way of flavour. In Spain, I worked with the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian; arguably the most distinguished culinary school in the world. The Basque Culinary Center arranged research investigations for me with the restaurants Arzak, Akalare and Mugaritz, all Titans in the gastronomic landscape each with their own distinctive interpretations of contemporary gastronomy. The aim of this Spanish portion of the research was to determine the communicability of artistic concepts - more playful, creative and flexible than the classical idea of cultural identity.

An additional case study was considered that explored India's use of symbolic foods in their religious rituals; however, this was not pursued owing to time and logistic constraints.

At the conclusion of this research I believe that I got what I came for - at least one example of where the chemical senses are responsible for communication artistic concepts,  in addition to a rich repertoire of examples which fell short in merit for artistic discourse. Future quantitative research investigations in this area would certainly add strength to my assertions, however, I believe that as a pioneering starting-place there is sufficient strength in the successful examples that I found to underpin some positive assertions; in particular, through the work of Mugaritz restaurant.

It is my conviction that as scientists gain a deeper understanding of the cognitive processes behind perception by way of the chemical senses, we will determine that these senses can increasingly contribute to artistic discourse. I believe that my assertions mark but a starting place for an increasingly complex and complete discourse for the capacity of these senses within art.