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What Does Color Smell Like?

by Allison Meier on July 17, 2014

Philip Mercier, "The Sense of Smell" (1744-47), oil on canvas (via Yale Center for British Art)

Philip Mercier, “The Sense of Smell” (1744-47), oil on canvas (via Yale Center for British Art)

That color and smell have a sensory connection is long-established, but there’s debate about whether associating the smell of strawberries with red or smoke with black is something structured in our brains, based in language, or resulting from experience. A study published this week in the peer-reviewed, open-access PLoS One called “Cross-Cultural Color-Odor Associations” suggests it may be cultural.

Bettina Chang asserted at Pacific Standard that the “results open a whole new argument about which particular factors contribute to color-odor differences. They could include language, age, travel experience, and frequency of cooking.” With 122 participants, the study, coordinated with an international research team headed by Carmel A. Levitan, associate professor of cognitive science at Occidental College, was arranged in six cultural groups. It’s a sort of strange selection of different cultures to focus on, but 20 participants who were Dutch, Chinese living in the Netherlands, American, German, Malay, and Malaysian Chinese were each offered 14 “odor pens” with synthetic concoctions like “fish” and “woody” to sniff. After getting a whiff of the unidentified scents, participants picked three colors from a 36-color palette they most closely associated with it, and three that were most disparate.

Color congruency for each odor in each culture chart (via "Cross-Cultural Color-Odor Associations" in PLoS One)

Color congruency for each odor in each culture chart (via “Cross-Cultural Color-Odor Associations” in PLoS One) (click to view larger)

You can find datasets of the responses here, as well as the chart to the left. While some aren’t terribly surprising like “fruity” getting pink across the board — although Germans also included yellow, green, and blue — other smells like “soap” got a lot of white and blue, but for Chinese in the Netherlands there’s also green, and the Germans again got creative with yellow, green, and blue. It’s not clear if the “candy” scent was also fruit-ish or more chocolate, but it got a lot of pink with the Americans and Malaysian Chinese, yellow for the Malay, yellow for Germans, black for Chinese in the Netherlands, and pink for the Dutch.

What’s curious is that there doesn’t seem to be much link in participants with close languages, as while Americans and Germans had similar responses, so did Germans and Malays. “We conclude that culture plays a role in color-odor crossmodel associations, which likely arise, at least in part, through experience,” the researchers state. “These differences could be due to patterns in dietary habits, the role of fragrance in each society, or other social factors.”

It’s not the first study to delve into the color of smell, from how color of food or drink can influence how it smells and tastes, and how colors can impact odor intensity. Meanwhile, synesthesia studies are looking at people who have these cross-sensory experience accented. For art, it would be interesting to expand research to how cultures respond with depictions of visual art presented alongside scents, as although it’s a sense not too often considered in viewing non-olfactory art, there is a neurological reason for why a strawberry painted black may have a more viscerally repulsive response than one painted a healthy red.

Read the entire “Cross-Cultural Color-Odor Associations” study online at PLoS One.  

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