October 23, 2023   

What Color is that Smell? How Odors Impact Color Perception

2023 10 what color is that smell odor color impact.jpg

Next time a client mentions that the color temperature seems too warm, perhaps someone just spilled a latte


Smell something and see the world differently. This intriguing concept is the core of a recent study by researchers from Liverpool John Moores University, University of Liverpool, and Cambridge University in Great Britain. They discovered that odors have a discernible impact on how people perceive colors.

Our senses don't operate in isolation. The brain constantly mingles information from different senses, leading to the rich and multifaceted experience we have of the world. This phenomenon, where one sensory experience can alter the perception in another sense, has been observed in various combinations, such as sound and taste or temperature and color. One area relatively less explored, until now, was the intersection of smell and sight.


According to the study, participants were presented with different odors and asked to adjust a color patch until it appeared neutral gray. Intriguingly, there was a consistent shift in the perceived neutral gray toward warmer colors when odors were present. When cherry odor was introduced, for example, participants adjusted the color patch to a hue that leaned toward red-brown.

So, does this mean if you're surrounded by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, you might see the world with a slightly redder tint? While the effect is subtle, there seems to be a connection.

Previous studies have shown that colors can influence our perception of odors. An orange-colored drink might be perceived as orange-flavored, even if it's cherry. Similarly, wine experts described white wine colored red as having the qualities of red wine. The new research suggests that the relationship is bidirectional: just as color can influence how we perceive odors, odors can sway our perception of color.

In terms of specific odors, the study found that the smell of caramel tended to be associated with a yellow-brown hue, cherry and coffee with a red-brown, lemon with yellow-green, and peppermint with a brown-red.

The exact reasons for this are still a topic of exploration. Semantics, or the associations we have with particular odors, might play a significant role. The smell of a cherry, for instance, brings to mind its typical red color. Such associations could be altering our color perceptions on a perceptual level.

However, the study also highlighted that identifying odors correctly can be challenging. Even familiar smells like coffee or peppermint were sometimes misidentified by participants. But even with this challenge in naming, the feeling of recognition might be strong enough to influence perception.

This latest study adds interesting insights into our understanding of how intertwined our senses truly are. Whether it's the music in a café influencing the taste of your latte or the scent of a room altering its color, it's clear our sensory experiences are far from singular.