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Multisensory researcher on how open access connects academia to the wider world

March 17, 2022 | 5 min read

By Ian Evans

Prof Charles Spence, PhD, of the University of Oxford investigates how our senses interact and how they impact our daily lives.

Oxford University professor talks fortuitous mistakes, multisensory experiences, and why open access helps bring research to non-academic experts

Dr Charles Spenceopens in new tab/window, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxfordopens in new tab/window, likes to talk sense. Or more specifically, senses. His research investigates the ways in which the human senses are connected and how the reports we receive from our senses could be key to redesigning various aspects of daily life to increase wellbeing.

It’s been a successful field of study for Charles, whose name appears on more than 700 published articles in Scopusopens in new tab/window and who has received multiple awards for his work. However, speaking from a hotel room in the early hours of the morning in New York, he explained that it was something he came to by accident:

Essentially, I left it too late to sign up to an undergraduate project psychology. But the one supervisor who had space to take me on had a TV with broken sound. He was also a DJ, so he used to play this TV through the loudspeakers connected to his turntable, which created a ventriloquist illusion as soon as someone started to speak.

The ventriloquist illusionopens in new tab/window, where sound appears to be coming from a silent object, is an example of multisensory processing, where our senses typically interact to create a more accurate perception of the world around us. Watching that TV with the sound coming from a different source set Charles thinking about the ways in which the senses interact, and how digital technologies often distort that.

As his work continued, his remit expanded from sound and vision to include taste, touch, pain and smell. He explained:

There’s nothing more multisensory than food and drink, so it’s a natural place for a multisensory scientist to end up, although many of by scientific colleagues aren’t quite there yet. But there are many interesting questions around multisensory flavor perception. For example, if we’re spending more time in the kitchen because of the pandemic, do the sights and smells associated with food prompt us to eat more than we need to?

Open access brings non-academics into the conversation

The nature of his work often means involving people from outside the research community. Currently, his group is also looking at problems associated with the design of foods that maximally stimulate the senses, something that previously brought him together with Heston Blumenthalopens in new tab/window, chef of The Fat Duckopens in new tab/window restaurant in Bray, UK. When it comes to collaborating with non-academic partners, Charles finds that publishing his research open access is especially useful. Open access, he says, helps bring the non-academic community into research:

All sorts of designers, artists, chefs can benefit from a lot of the work we do, but they will rarely have access to the subscription journals. When you’re doing research that has a much broader audience than traditional laboratory-based research, open access represents an important a way to bring that audience into the conversation and foster new collaboration.

Sometimes, he said, collaborators are skeptical of open access, especially if they’re coming from an environment where subscription journals are the norm, or if they’re used to publishing in highly-specialized research areas where the target audience is automatically assumed to have access to the relevant subscription journal. He explained:

I am awe that some of my academic colleagues in different research fields still see open access as new-fangled nonsense (and incorrectly associate open access with predatory journals). I’m not sure how many people still think like that, but for those that do, I would say it’s worth looking at (open access) just to see whether it makes a difference in visibility. There’s an opportunity with open access to bring research to people who would otherwise miss out on it — it doesn’t always translate to citations, but it really helps to broaden the visibility of one’s research.

What’s more, I increasingly see journalists who want to include a link to the underpinning research that they are describing in the articles they right, but will only do so if that research is not behind a paywall.

Charles also noted that how and where a researcher might choose to publish open access is affected by elements such as Impact Factor and the potential longevity of the platform:

It can be quite frustrating for a researcher if you publish in a journal or on a platform that then basically disappears, so longevity is a consideration as well. I had about 20 papers published in one particular open access journal which disappeared after about five or six years. So you want to publish in a place where you know your work will continue to be available, though that can be hard to predict.

Charles has published multiple open access articles with Elsevier journals and others, on topics ranging from how the sound and feel of a beer bottle affect people’s perceptions of its premium qualityopens in new tab/window to how distractions in learning environments can affect cognitive function in children and young adultsopens in new tab/window.

“For anything that has a broader audience, open access can make a lot of sense,” he said.

Charles’s research is set to continue to build bridges between academic research and the non-academic world. During our discussion, we talked about the way pandemic lockdowns limited some of our sensory inputs, and that the lifting of lockdowns and the return to our favorite activities drove home the importance of the multi-sensory experience. Live music, for example, was something that people attempted to recreate through streamed performances, but nothing really compares to the physical feel of music, the smell of cut grass at a festival, or the obvious presence of other people. Charles elaborated:

The shared nature of things is very important. Why is watching a movie on Netflix different to seeing it in the cinema? Partly a bigger screen, yes, but some researchers have tracked the outflow of a cinema’s air-conditioningopens in new tab/window to show that there’s a sort of olfactory response to what the rest of the audience is experiencing. It’s not just about what you see and hear —what others are experience is part of your experience.


Portrait photo of Ian Evans


Ian Evans

Senior Director, Editorial, Content & Brand


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