Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Synethesia: Color and Fragrance


And the winner is:  Lucy! Send postal details to me at olfactarama at att dot net and I’ll send you the samples posthaste!

Back in June, artisanal perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz graciously sent me a set of nine fragrances she calls the CHROMA Collection. She explores fragrance as a synesthete -- someone who is able to cross sensory fields such as color and scent. I’ve been interested in synesthesia for some time and have finally had the time to evaluate these properly.
The term “Synesthesia,” if you look it up, describes an involuntary brain condition. Sometimes it results from brain injury, while some are born with it. The form I’ve seen mentioned most is “seeing” letters or numbers in color, as in 1234567. There are other forms, too: visual/auditory for example, like “seeing” musical notes.
Studies on olfactory synesthesia are sparse. The sense of smell is still taking the back seat to vision and hearing, pretty much everywhere, but there have been some efforts. One, from What the Nose Knows author Avery Gilbert and partners, identified a link between superior odor perception and the ability to conjure imagery when presented with an odor. In other words, those of us who are constantly evaluating and identifying “notes” in perfumes should be able to visualize them as colors more easily than those who don't.  I can, fairly easily. (This does not make me as a synesthete, though. The condition “Synesthesia” is involuntary, whereas I have to think about what color a scent might be.) But do we visualize the same colors as others? Would I “see” the same colors the perfumer saw?
So, in a spectacularly unscientific experiment, I covered the labels on the nine bottles so I could not see the name nor the color of the juice, then mixed them up. I numbered nine scent strips and got to it, applying fragrance to the strips, smelling them twice over a 5 minute period, and writing down my guesses (and the “right” answer, afterward) in real time. Here’s what happened.
# 1.  I’ve smelled this before. It smells like cherries, fruit. Red. Cherry Red. (Answer:  “Quinacrodone Violet,” based on the very bright and very synthetic artists’  pigment of that name, which is a sort of fuschia.) I would have guessed  “Quinacrodone Red,” a cherry red.
#2.  Peppery and green, not like leaves, but a warmish blue-green. (Answer: “Celadon.”  Close.)

#3.  Foresty. (Answer: "Blue-Green.") Pretty good.

#4.  Fresh. Freshness. I can’t see this as a particular color, but I know it’s from the cool end of the spectrum. (Answer: “Viridian.”)  In pigment, an intense blue-green that isn’t very strong in mixes.


#5. A yellow? No: "Cyan," which is the green-blue used in printing and also the blue tone in light, like the screen you're probably staring at right now.

#6. Ginger? No, licorice. But something about this reminds me of a natural yellow ochre, a warm earthy yellow. (Answer: it’s “Prince,” which Hurwtiz says in her notes was a textile color from the 17th century, an indigo-blue-black shot through with crimson red.”) I would never have guessed black. Never.
    #7. I see purple. A cool, blue-purple. (Answer: Wrong again! It’s “Sienna,” which is a warm, coppery brown.)

    #8.  Okay, this is a citrus. Um, orange. (Answer: Yes! It's "The Color Orange.")  

    # 9. This is a spice, woody kind of scent. A brown. We’ve already done Sienna. Is it an  umber? (Answer: Yes! It is, in fact, “Umber.”)

    I got approximately 4 out of 9, but there is a problem here (or perhaps this is just a very badly designed experiment.) I know Hurwitz wouldn’t use the same color twice in a 9-bottle collection. So, since I eliminated the used colors as I went down the list, my chance of success became greater.  

     If I did this over again, I’d wait and smell the strips before unveiling the bottles. And I would ask someone else to do the test  -- somebody who doesn’t know and/or doesn’t care about perfume.

    As perfumes, my decidedly non-objective preferences are # 2 -- “Celedon” -- and # 7 -- “Sienna,”  but all are interesting and unique. 
    Do you “see” perfumes as colors? Do you have to think about it first?


    Click here for more information on Parfums des Beaux Arts.

    The Avery Gilbert reference is from “What The Nose Knows -- The Science of Scent In Everyday Life” by Avery Gilbert, Crown, 2008 (ISBN 978-1-4000-8234-6) p. 132.  The original paper appeared in the American Journal of Psychology, 1996 Fall; 109(3):335-51.

    Photo by author.

    Winner chosen using random.org.

    16 comments:

    Ines said...

    Some perfumes I see as colors, some not. And I can't even say that a particular group causes that, because I've seen a lot of colors, from orientals to citruses and chypres. I don't really know why some create colors and other don't (isn't connected with how much I like them either)...

    anotherperfumeblog said...

    I've often thought about this. Sometimes I do see a perfume as a color, but usually I have to think about it. I do think it's interesting that people usually agree, or that when I go to read reviews of perfumes on blogs, people usually choose images with colors in the same family.

    Elisa said...

    I often think of perfumes in terms of colors, but I admit to being somewhat influenced by the colors of the packaging.

    I am wearing gray and black today and couldn't bring myself to put on a brownish (amber-y) perfume. It would clash!

    museinwoodenshoes said...

    I frequently think of scents as having color, but it's not an automatic, synesthesia sort of thing. It has much more to do with the emotion each scent evokes for me.

    For example: Le Temps d'une Fete is a beautiful soft yellow-green like spring leaves. Chamade is both green AND gold, not a mixture. Insolence, which I hated violently, was a bright screaming magenta-purple, a color I also dislike very much. I think of Diorissimo as being pastel cyan. No. 5, and most other aldehydes, are a soft yet bright middle blue, somewhere between Carolina and royal. My new almost-signature MG Plum is both peachy-pink and celadon.

    Elisa said...

    Mals, perhaps you hate it violetly? Ha ha ha. I recently came into a mini of Insolence in EDT and find it quite pretty when dabbed ...

    I've never found a perfume that smelled bright blue to me. Now I want one.

    Rappleyea said...

    Like several others here, I always associate scents with color. It would be interesting to study the parts of the brain triggered by each.

    And Elisa... I too need a "bright blue" scent as I always wear royal blue on game days (University of Ky.) and for some reason, that color is hardest to "match" in scent. The best I can do is to wear indigo blue scents or violet colored scents (not necessarily violet scents).

    Very interesting subject, O.!

    Olfacta said...

    Shalimar, for some reason, is a royal blue to me.

    Back when I didn't have quite so many samples, I sorted them by family into some of those little organza bags. Orientals went into the blue one. Florals (surprise surprise!) went in the pink one(s). Citruses and other "summer" scents went into the aqua one, chypres in the black one and "unclassifiables" in a white one. It seemed very logical at the time. Of course now the samples are all over the house.

    Kym said...

    I do see perfumes in color - especially roses.

    Lucy said...

    Wow, I am so happy to have won! I am sending you the address post haste.
    Thank you so much for running such an unusual and intriguing give away.
    X
    Lucy

    Lucy said...

    There are a number of perfume elements that give me a sense of color, but more in the golden and green range, and some silver grays and blacks, and also white as an opposite and modern quality/color. It is not a connection that is called forth by each and every perfume for me, tho when the perfumer makes a point of it, (amethyst, pink, noire, blanche, cerulean, etc.) it does auto-suggest a direction for mysensory associations.

    Lavanya said...

    I don't have synesthaesia but I am fascinated by the subject as well. I wrote a very similar posts about describing smells- I find that I do see perfume in color...Sometimes I wonder if I might be influenced by the color of the juice- but often it is just the smell...
    Like muse said, I also see Le Temps as a soft pale yellow-green..Sometimes I also 'see' smells as high pitched or low pitched etc..The interplay of color and smell is so fascinating isn't it?

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