There's nothing like colour and aroma to whip up our moods and emotions. These fleeting sensations are like dancing rainbows, for the more we try to hold onto them, the more elusive they become. This is the enigma of colour and scent, for they both have physical and metaphysical aspects that tease the body and mind.
Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are a mosaic of senses that we use to explore and understand the world. Colour is considered our primary sense as it has the most powerful and immediate impact on us, and we often use it as a symbolic form of communication. We do this by choosing colours to wear and decor to reflect our personality, thoughts, and feelings. Not all light entering the eyes is used for sight, and some are transmitted as electrical impulses to the prism-like pineal and the pituitary gland that regulates the production of endorphins or 'happy hormones'. When we are ill or depressed, we are intuitively attracted to dull or dark tones, but when we are in a positive mood, we will reach for brighter hues.
Our personal relationship with colour harmonises with our aura and expresses who we are. The French painter and film-maker Fernand Leger, in his Monumentality and Colour, written in 1943, describes the necessity of colour like this: "Colour is a raw material indispensable to life. In every era of his existence and history, the human being has associated colour with his joys, actions, and pleasures." Colour, therefore, reflects the human spirit, acting as a mirror, simultaneously reflecting our inner being and outer being, our physical and spiritual nature.
Natural sunlight is essential to our good health and wellbeing, and we need exposure to all the spectrum colours to lead a happy and balanced life. Different colours contain specific mood-enhancing qualities, and chromotherapy treatments use these to harmonise our physical, emotional, and mental imbalances.
Red is a warm hue that stimulates physical action, while orange and yellow encourage mental alertness and focus. Colours at the cooler end of the spectrum, green and blue, are calming and relaxing. Blue improves sleep, while green helps reduce stress. The gentle pastels of lavender and pink are comforting and emotionally supportive. By contrast, purple is a pervasive wavelength that boosts our mood, rejuvenating and uplifting our spirit.
Although we have an immediate emotional reaction to visual cues, they also profoundly affect our mental state. According to a study at the University of British Columbia, certain colours stimulate the mind, helping with concentration and attention span and facilitating memory retention and learning. Not only does colour improve factual memory, but we also link specific colours to our memories of objects, places, and people with whom we have an emotional connection, perhaps the colour of someone's hair, a special outfit or a favourite holiday destination.
Certain aromas also trigger memories. The French verb 'Sentir' means both 'to feel' and 'to smell', so fragrance transforms our moods and emotions and has the power to transport us to a different place and time — an olfactory déjà vu. This happens because our olfactory organs are linked to the limbic brain, the area where our most primal instinct lies, and this creates an 'odour image' that imprints our memory. You have probably experienced getting a whiff of fragrance, triggering a memory of a place or event with which you have a strong emotional connection.
Our shared experiences also influence our responses to colour and aroma in everyday life. Whereas our photoreceptors inform us about visual phenomena, our sense of smell keeps us in touch with the volatile chemicals in our surroundings. Our brain often links the information from these two senses, so we generally anticipate red, pink, and orange things to have sweet flavours and smells, describing them as warm and comforting. We commonly connect white, grey, and blue to marine environments with a salty taste and metallic aroma, while black and brown have musky or bitter associations that remind us of leather or chocolate. Green and yellow are often linked to the fruits and flowers of citrus plants, and we expect that the taste will be acidic or sour.
Image by Jermine Chua
While we need to formulate appropriate behaviour from the information coming in from our senses, some colour and aroma impulses bypass the middle brain, the part that rationalises, analyses, reasons and censors our responses to the world. These stimulate the creative right side of the brain, making us more attracted to colours and aromas with which we have positive emotional connections. Surrounding ourselves with these colours and fragrances boosts our self-esteem and gives us a natural high.
The explosive interplay between the rational and intuitive is what artists and scientists have grappled with throughout history. In infants and young children, our sensory perceptions of sight, hearing and smell are closely linked, but as we grow and mature, these become more isolated from one another.
However, some people naturally experience the world in a multisensory way in a type of brain 'cross-wiring', known as synaesthesia. The largest group of people are creatives who can live in the moment and rekindle the cross-sensory world of childhood wonder. Many express their thoughts and feelings through multi-media installations, music, acting, dance, and poetry. Live Science magazine reported that synaesthesia is seven times more common in this group than in the rest of the population.
In those with synaesthesia, colours perceived as sounds are most common; however, odour-colour connections are particularly unique and only found in 6% of those with this condition. In studies, the individuals who experienced vivid colours when they smelled odours were better at discriminating and naming colours and smells.
Although we each have a unique relationship with colour, individual hues also have universally accepted qualities. Therefore, our expectations about colour can mediate our olfactory perceptions through these shared cultural and emotional experiences. The manufacture and use of many scented products are based on these expectations, but sometimes they run contrary to individual experiences.
The aroma of the lavender flower is commonly considered to be calming and relaxing, which makes it a regular choice to have around a yoga class or spa treatment, even though the flower is not a natural sedative. Most people are happy to relax in a lavender-infused space, but if they have previously had a negative encounter with this fragrance, it may bring back unhappy memories.
Olfactory experts point to 'signature fragrances' as a solution to get around this problem, producing an original scent that no one will dislike because of past negative associations. Such a breakthrough was made by master perfumer Geza Schoen when he created Escentric Molecule 01, a single aroma supermolecule that has a different smell on each of us, mingling with our aura to create a unique blueprint or signature. In this way, Geza created an irresistible fragrance, free from all our preconceived expectations.
Image by Jermine Chua
His latest evocative creation, Escentric 05, part of the Escentric range, reconnects us with nature by transporting us to an idyllic Mediterranean island. By combining scientifically produced molecules with natural fragrances, the aromatic notes dance around on the skin like colours in a prism.
For me, Escentric 05 opened the window onto a dreamy summer evening of fading pink and azure blue, shot through with burnt umber and pine green; proving that when we use this perfume, even though over time it leaves us, the colour-aromatic glow lingers and continues to warm and comfort us.