'Please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! - when Franz Liszt addressed his orchestra with these words, the musicians were stunned. How on earth do you play bluer? Liszt wasn’t the only composer who claimed to literally see the colors of music. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov believed C major was white, and the key of B major was a “gloomy dark blue with a steel shine”. Other people, meanwhile, are capable of seeing the colors of letters. Vladimir Nabokov said famously that to him, rainbow looked like this: KZSPYGV
Show people a star-like shape, ask if it’s called a “Bouba” or a “Kiki”, and 98% will choose the second answer. Some colors, shapes and sounds just match better in our brains, just like some smells fit particularly well with some colors or musical notes. Companies like Starbucks or Nestlé are already using such “crossmodal correspondences” to promote their products. Interactions between the senses can be used in many ways besides marketing - even to prepare better presentations.
Synesthetes, people for whom stimulating one sense causes experiences in another, are rather rare creatures - only one in twenty-three of us are like that. Some famous synesthetes include Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder. But nowadays scientists are discovering more and more proof that we all are a bit like Liszt and Nabokov: That all our senses interact with each other to create a fuller, more complex and fascinating world. We can all hear smells, taste colors, and smell music on some level.
"It just always stuck out in my mind, and I could always see it. I don't know if that makes sense, but I could always visualize what I was hearing... Yeah, it was always like weird colors."
— From a Nightline interview with Pharrell
Think of the letter “A”. What color is it? And what about “B” and “C”? If you said red for “A”, blue for “B” and yellow for “C” you are like the majority of people. Does that mean you are as much of a synesthete as Vladimir Nabokov was? Not necessarily. Larry Marks, professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, differentiates between 'strong' synesthesia (like that of Liszt or Nabokov) and a ‘weak” synesthesia. When strong synesthetes see a sentence printed in black they perceive it as if a rainbow dropped on the page.
If you test strong synesthetes years later, they will still claim that the colour of a letter K is “huckleberry” (the way Nabokov saw it). Weak synesthetes - like the authors of this blog - have to think hard before they assign a colour to a letter or a day of a week. We are also more sloppy describing the hues. We don’t say that z is “thundercloud,” but simply “black”. What fascinates scientists, though, is that we all often agree in our synesthetic choices. Just consider: Which colour is heavier: red or yellow? Red is the most common answer.
A German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler, constructed this particular experiment back in 1929. Köhler noticed that 95% of people choose “kiki” for the pointy shape, and 98% is convinced that the amoeba-like blob is called a “bouba”. What’s more, even illiterate people from Himba tribe living in a secluded part of northern Namibia agree on this.
The Tchaikovsky taste of wine
Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, dedicated his career to studying the surprising connections between our senses and how these connections could be used in practice. He found, for example, that people tend to match the smell of candied oranges with high notes of piano, and the aroma of musk with brass instruments.
Our hearing is also associated with the sense of taste, touch and vision. Studies have long suggested that if we hear a sound that matches a flavour of a particular food, we perceive that food as yummier. For example, potato chips taste better if we can hear the crunching (next time you snack on chips put earplugs in your ears and see what happens). Other studies show that music can boost the taste of wine. In an experiment published recently in the British Journal of Psychology, people who tasted wine while Carmina Burana thundered from the speakers, found the drink heavy and powerful. Meanwhile, paring the same wine with calmer tones from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, made it taste more refined. And it’s not just wine and music. Charles Spence discovered, for example, that desserts appear sweeter when served on white plates. Similar research know as “Achilles’ Ear.” where study subjects listen to recordings of sounds, view images of shapes, or feel vibrations of a metal bar found that they were better at remembering things when they heard, felt and saw.
One of The Fat Duck’s innovative desserts
So can such findings be used in practice? Sure they can. To prove his theory, Spence is working with Heston Blumenthal, the famed chef of The Fat Duck restaurant in UK (considered one of the best in the world). In one such attempt, Blumenthal had created a bitter-sweet dessert, to which Spence helped fit two melodies: One that makes the dessert sweeter, another that accentuates the bitter tones of the dish. The customer then plays with the flavours by choosing which sounds he wants to spice up his dessert with.
How can music change the taste of wine or sweeten a dessert? Likely there are several causes for this. First, there may be connections in our brains that make some crossmodal pairings appear “correct”. Second, it may be that we simply learn them through observing our surroundings - internalizing statistical regularities in the environment. Experience tells us, for example, that ripe fruits are more commonly red than green. Therefore, a red square painted on a sheet of paper will appear sweeter to us than a green one. Similarly, big objects are more likely to emit lower tones than small objects. Imagine you are a postman: If you hear low barking from behind one fence, and a shrill, high yapping from behind another, which garden would you be more willing to enter?
Humans, like things we find predictable. That’s why when multiple senses work together for example, if a color “fits” a sound, we enjoy the whole experience more and retain it for longer. And yes, you can use these findings in marketing. Spence believes that research on weak synesthesia can be applied in everything from creating advertising jingles to designing product packaging. Already, such companies as Starbucks, Roja Dove (perfume producer) or Courvoisier employ Spence to help them promote their products. Starbucks, for example, offers clients music which is supposed to boost the taste of coffee.
Can weak synesthesia be also used in creating visual discussions? Sure it can. If you match colors, sounds and shapes well, they will complement each other and create a better, more enjoyable experience. So don’t write “sweet”, write “sweet”. As long as you don’t obsess too much what should your presentation smell like, it may be fun to give synesthetic marketing a try. For more ideas what fits what, check out research done in Spence’s lab.
By Marta Zaraska @mzaraska, a freelance science writer in collaboration with Vimodi.
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