Kate’s Word:- Synesthesia and Perfume

The term, synesthesia, is a hot topic among various autism groups. It is even making a mark in mainstream social media. It refers to the brain receiving stimulus from one sense, but registering it in that and at least one other sense. An example is hearing Bach concertos when looking at colours such as purple or dark blue. The brain registers that one is looking at a purple object, but happening at the same time is the feeling of hearing a Bach organ concerto. It seems to be a common phenomenon, and not just among autists.

When reading perfume reviews, it is obvious there is a lot of difficulty in authors attempting to portray perceptions of perfumes. Many times, people retreat to the comfort of conjuring up a memory, or a scenario, or place in their written descriptions. I think this is a form of synesthesia at work. Quite simply because spending time at the beach is a multi sensory activity, and one we tend to relate to. So, describing Lauder’s Bronze Goddess as a trip to the beach is something we can put our senses to and have some common understanding, using as few words as possible and avoiding the problems in translation. Ah, yes! Suntan lotion!

There are some people fortunate enough to see correlations between art and music, and they can produce magnificent art works from that juncture of their senses whilst hearing a favourite piece of music. There are others who taste food in their mouths upon looking at colours. Then some folk feel a texture when they smell something on the wind. It makes for a fascinating look into how we perceive and understand the world. Many of our decisions and choices are rooted in our senses and so knowing this about another helps bring us closer and to understand their motives for doing things.

One of the absolute joys of perfume is the richness it brings in a sensory way. It has a tactile quality because the bottles, lids, boxes and sprayers are objects we handle. It has an olfactory stimulus that we associate with our noses, but is equally active on our brains and taste buds. (Don’t ever imbibe a perfume. Not tasty!) Then there is the optic joy of a beautiful box or an exquisite coloured amber juice. But perfume combines all these to bring us an extraordinary realm beyond these five senses. Think of your first encounter with Angel, or your 100th spray of Shalimar. Do you see my point?

Each of my perfumes has some sort of special quality to it. Each one has been made by a host of designers, perfumers, marketers and the like; except Teone’s scents which are her own production entirely. Someone has made that scent and poured a bit of their soul into it. My senses cannot help but pick out a quality that then imparts an imprint upon my brain. Through doing this, I have learned that I have a high degree of synesthesia. And I am finding out it is not at all weird, nor am I alone.

There is no wonder that clothes designers have opted to associate their brands with scents. If I think about Dior’s New Look of the late 40s, I immediately think of the old Miss Dior. The heavy woven textiles of the day and the heft of material used is perfectly matched with the denseness of the hounds-tooth used for the box and the earthy tones of the oakmoss and aldehydes in the scent itself. Then there is the opulent vision of hedonism with Opium by Mr Saint Laurent. If you know the scent, sit back with your eyes closed and note what comes to your mind. Any bet it was something affliated with your senses, right? And the clothing released by YSL at that time was decadent and begging to be touched. Designers realise the entwined nature of our senses, and the more they play with our senses, the more we will relate to their brand on more than one level.

My first inkling I was a little different to those around me was when I was at kindergarten. I got a massive high from being around all the paint colours, the basic books introducing the various nuances of colour, the Crayola collection of 72 different colours with exotic names, the smell of the glossy square pieces of paper we had to rip up for collages, and the feel of all the art supplies. To me, they all worked with each other and were like a giant tapestry of stimulatory joy. When the teacher read a book about crimson, I could taste the red strawberries, feel the ribbon hem of my teacher’s skirt, smell the tomato being cut and hear the fire engine roar by. It made complete sense that each colour infiltrated every aspect of my being. I still get incredible joy from touching Pantone squares and ordering Crayola crayons in their tower.


Perfumes have qualities a perfumer wants to impart to you and I. It may not be that we get the same sensation from a scent, but the aim is for the perfumer to speak in an olfactory manner. For some of us, synesthesia is another road to understanding. Sort of akin to a listener using headphones to listen to a speech translated into their language. The message is being transmitted, but the method to listening is different. And what that message means is very much up to you!


– Kate Apted ©2018

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