If you have ever felt annoyed by the noise in a restaurant, you are not alone. While frustration is one obvious part of the problem, the other is more subtle. As experts in the multisensory dining experience explain, noise can change the way our brains perceive taste, aroma, flavours and texture – and this can happen anywhere, from high-end restaurants to school dining rooms.
How do we define ‘noise’?
“A sound, especially one that is loud or unpleasant or that causes disturbance,” is a dictionary definition of noise. In restaurants, background music may be the predominant sound. In school dining spaces, it is generated by kitchen activity, pupils’ voices, the scraping of chairs and the chink of cutlery pinging off every available surface. Bare walls, high ceilings, large expanses of glass and functional furniture quickly amplify this natural hubbub.
What is an acceptable level?
Starting at a ‘quiet’ volume of around 60 decibels prior to pupils descending, this can rise rapidly to 70 decibels – equivalent to the background noise of a loud vacuum cleaner – as more pupils fill the dining hall. The more pupils and the more ‘industrial’ the space, the more the volume can rise. If it hits 80 decibels, this equates to city traffic. It may, however, feel disproportionately louder because for every 10 decibels increase in background noise, we subjectively perceive it as a doubling in loudness.
How noise changes our eating experiences
Music played at 75 and 85 decibels has been shown to cause people to rate foods like crisps, cheese and crackers as significantly less salty, and rating biscuits and flapjacks less sweet than when consumed with music set between 45 to 55 decibels. Researchers have also shown that the higher the volume of background noise, the faster we tend to chew and swallow.
Experts believe noise exerts these effects in part by distracting us from the flavour and texture of what is in our mouths and neuroimaging suggests this may play a role. Others point to loud noises triggering stress responses in our bodies, which modify taste pathways in our brains and speed up the eating process, giving us less time to savour flavours.
The impact of such outcomes can be profound. If, for example, our sense of enjoyment and satiety are diminished by too much noise, pupils may simply like meals less and feel less satisfied, however fresh the ingredients, well prepared and plentiful. If noise diminishes ability to perceive saltiness and sweetness, pupils might also skew choices towards these elements of a meal, making their overall food choices less balanced.
Last, but by no means least, if the volume of the dining room triggers stress, pupils may opt for ‘comfort’ options, to help calm themselves down, ignoring for instance, vegetables and fruits in the process. The ongoing impact of the dining hall-induced stress could go on to impact their memory, cognition and learning in the afternoon ahead. Perhaps not surprisingly, scientists have observed that reductions in noise level, in any part of school, including dining rooms, could improve a child’s educational outcome and overall mental wellbeing.
Reducing noise can involve sophisticated, high-tech solutions like custom-made sound absorbing panels and tiles. If such professionally installed options are financially prohibitive, it may be worth considering a ‘whole school DIY’ approach to dining hall volume control.
Physics departments could measure the impact of noise-muffling rubber or felt bottoms to reduce the scraping volume of chair legs. Within design and technology, sound-absorbing panels could be created, placed around the dining hall and their effectiveness at absorbing noise observed. So too, drapes hung from ceilings and at windows. The art department could instigate the decoration of such panels and drapes while biology departments could investigate the best type and optimal positioning of plants and foliage to lower the volume of the dining room cacophony.
School mealtimes provide marvellous moments to enjoy food, share worries, laughter and good times. Getting the volume right in the dining hall can help optimise all these vital components and nurture overall wellbeing of pupils and staff alike.