Scientists reveal how sense of smell alters our perception of colors

Color perception is affected by odors, study finds.


In a fascinating study conducted by scientists, it has been revealed that our sense of smell significantly impacts how we perceive colors. This research highlights the intricate connection between our olfactory and visual senses, highlighting how one can influence the other.

Our five senses give us lots of information all the time. Sometimes, our brain mixes information for different reasons, like smell and touch, sound and height, or color and music. This mixing of substances makes us think of certain things, like warmer colors when it’s hot or the taste of oranges when we see orange.

A new study in Frontiers in Psychology found that these mixes of senses, especially our sense of smell, can change how we see colors. Dr. Ryan Ward, who works at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, led this study.

Dr. Ward and his team wanted to determine if smells affect how people see colors. They did this by testing 24 adults, of both the gender aged 20 to 57. These people sat in a quiet room before a screen for the tests. They didn’t use perfumes or deodorants and could all see colors and smell properly.

Before the tests, they cleaned the room’s air with a machine to remove smells. Then, they released one of six scents (picked randomly from caramel, cherry, coffee, lemon, peppermint, or plain water as a control) into the room using a particular machine.

“In a previous study, we had shown that the odor of caramel commonly constitutes a crossmodal association with dark brown and yellow, just like coffee with dark brown and red, cherry with pink, red, and purple, peppermint with green and blue, and lemon with yellow, green, and pink,” explained Ward.

People tended to see colors differently when they smelled certain things like coffee or caramel. For example, the smell of coffee made them see grey as more of a red-brown color, and the scent of caramel made them see a blueish color as grey.

However, when they smelled peppermint, their color choice differed from what was expected. But they saw the right color when they smelled something neutral like water.

These results show that smells can make us see colors differently, and sometimes, we overcompensate by choosing colors that are too different from what we should see based on the scent. This means that our brain is strongly influenced by how our senses work together.

The researchers highlight the importance of exploring the extent of crossmodal connections between smells and colors. They want to determine just how widespread these connections might be.

“We need to know the degree to which odors influence color perception. For example, is the effect shown here still present for less commonly encountered odors, or even for odors encountered for the first time?” said Ward.

In conclusion, the research conducted by scientists has provided compelling evidence that our sense of smell can change the colors we see. This study opens up exciting possibilities for further exploration into the intricate relationship between our minds and how they collectively shape our world perception.

Journal Reference:

  1. Ryan J. Ward, Maliha Ashraf, et al., Odors modulate color appearance. Frontiers in Psycology. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1175703.
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