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To the average tongue, the color "red" doesn't have a flavor or a smell. But color can affect how we perceive the world in so many ways - including how things taste and smell!

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This episode of SciShow Psych was brought to you by LEGO Education.

LEGO Education has been inspiring teachers and students in the classroom for over 40 years through playful, hands-on, and engaging STEAM learning experiences. Click the link in the description to learn more about Lego Education Spike Essential, the newest, hands-on STEAM learning solution for grades 1-5. [♪ INTRO] There are times when our senses can overlap with each other.

The most notable case is synesthesia, where things like words, numbers, and musical notes can all evoke colors or other responses and create rich, multisensory experiences. But even for the vast majority of other folks who don’t have synesthesia, colors can affect the way we perceive the world. Seriously.

We all know the kid who went for the red ice pops first, because red is totally the best flavor. That might be because they liked the flavor of strawberry or cherry, or whatever flavor popsicle it actually is. Or… it might be because the color was tricking their brain into thinking it’s a flavor they like.

Because, as bizarre as it sounds, the color of food or drink significantly influences how people perceive and identify its taste. And this is definitely a thing. There have been dozens of studies on this.

But take, for example, one published in 2007. In this study, researchers gave 124 drinks to 11 participants for them to sample. The drinks came in four flavors: lime, orange, strawberry, or no flavor.

And they were all either clear or colored green, orange, or red. The researchers told participants in advance that the drink’s color would have nothing to do with its flavor, which was true. For instance, the red drink was just as likely to be lime-flavored as it was to be strawberry-flavored.

And the subjects’ task was to identify the flavor of each drink on a multiple-choice answer sheet. Like many studies before it, this experiment found that participants were significantly more likely to identify a flavor correctly if it was accompanied by the “appropriate” color, like if a lime drink was green and an orange drink was orange. And this was true even though participants were aware the color was likely to mislead them.

Other studies have shown that, in similar experiments, people tend to mistake the flavor of a drink for one that matches the color. So, for instance, if a lime drink was red, they would be more likely to misidentify it as strawberry than as orange. The bottom line is, while the color “red” is, on its own, definitely not a flavor, it does affect how you experience the flavor it accompanies.

So in a way, you really can like “red” flavor. This same phenomenon also extends to smells. Which is not exactly surprising, because our sense of taste and smell are really closely related.

In fact, a lot of what we perceive as flavor comes from odor molecules that float up to our smell receptors through our mouths. And as with taste, studies have shown the visual cues we get from color help us identify smells more quickly and accurately. In fact, one 1981 study found that the source of a smell doesn’t have to be the corresponding color.

The color and odor just sort of need to be in the same place. Like, the author of this study found that if an odor was presented along with colored words or patches, subjects could identify it faster and more accurately than odors presented with inappropriate color cues. So as an example, the smell of lemon would likely be easier to identify in a yellow room than in a pink room.

Which sounds strange. But what all this research adds up to is very clear evidence that color influences our perception of smell and taste. What’s less clear is why this happens.

Scientists have not nailed down one single answer, but there are a few possibilities. The first is that the appearance of food or drinks produces what some researchers call an expectancy-based effect. Basically the color of something tells you what to expect, and your expectation is actually enough to overpower reality and influence the way you identify a taste or smell.

This idea is similar to the placebo effect, where people’s beliefs about a treatment actually change the symptoms they experience. Another way color could influence how we identify a flavor or smell is by directing our attention. See, not all of the information in our environment available for us to perceive makes it through to our conscious notice.

That would overwhelm our poor little brains. So our brains choose certain signals to pay attention to, and our attention determines what we are conscious of in the world around us. Researchers have suggested that by shifting our attention, visual information from an object’s color might make us notice more “redness” or “green-ness” in its flavor.

And that could possibly shift our perception of its taste. For now, though, this is still up for debate. Meanwhile, other scientists have gone as far to suggest that we could actually have some crossed wires linking our visual perception to our senses of smell and taste on a physiological level.

That idea, which is called multisensory integration, hasn’t yet been explored in a lot of depth, but it’s another possibility that is on the table. Even if we don’t completely understand how this phenomenon works, though, the fact that color has such a powerful influence on other senses has real-life impacts. Like, for winemakers, perfecting the color of a wine can be just as critical as perfecting the taste.

And the same can go for any kind of food. And it goes to show that you don’t have to be a synesthete to experience the world through finely tuned, interconnected senses. Thanks to LEGO Education for supporting this episode of SciShow.

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This includes projects like Winning Goal! Maria loves soccer, but she also loves video games, so students will use their engineering and programming skills to build a customized, moving soccer goal to combine the two things Maria loves into a challenging, new game! Each set comes in a classroom-ready sturdy storage box with 449 LEGO bricks and hardware.

Plus, each set is designed to be shared by up to two students at a time. SPIKE Essential is part of the new LEGO Learning System, a system of STEAM learning with solutions that work together to deliver engaging, hands-on and playful learning experiences to support every student on their learning journey. Click the link in the description to learn more about how LEGO Education solutions can engage all learners, build their confidence,  and spark a lifelong love of learning.

And check out this episode of SciShow Kids to see LEGO SPIKE Essential in action! [♪ OUTRO]