How well you can identify colors, sounds, and tastes depends on where you come from

Generally, humans suck at smell.
Generally, humans suck at smell.
Image: AP Photo/tok/stf/Thomas Kienzle
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“There is no ‘true’,” wrote French author Gustave Flaubert in a letter to his friend, writer León Hennique. “There are only ways of perceiving.” Though Flaubert couldn’t have known it when he wrote those words in the 1880s, research over the subsequent century-plus has found a wealth of evidence to support his view. Perhaps you’ve heard before that how culture and language shape your perception of color: while some languages like Russian, have separate words for light and dark blue, other languages have a single word that refers to not only blue but also green. And yet other cultures have no word for blue at all, and just have three color words: dark, light, and red.

“We often think the way we experience the world must be the way it is,” says Asifa Majid, a psychology professor at the University of York. But the way we perceive varies widely, according to a new study by Majid and 25 colleagues, not just in terms of color, but in how we identify input from all five of our senses. While English speakers tend to privilege our visual and auditory senses over taste, smell, or touch, that’s far from a universal among the world’s cultures.

Majid and colleagues tested 313 people representing 20 languages. Some used common languages, like English, Farsi, and Cantonese, while others used endangered languages, like Yuracaré, which has under 3,000 native speakers; still others used sign languages.

Researchers presented each participant with the same set of items and sounds, and asked them questions about it, like What color is this? Some languages required researchers to tweak the question slightly, asking instead, How has it been dyed? or How does it strike the eye? 

To analyze people’s responses, researchers developed a metric they call “codability,” which measures the degree to which there’s consensus about how to describe sensory input. High codability means it’s easy to describe a sense; low means it’s difficult. “Let’s say I ask nine people to describe a shade of green,” says Majid. “In one hypothetical scenario, we might get seven people saying ‘green,’ one says ‘teal,’ and one says ‘moss-colored.’ In another hypothetical scenario we might test nine people, but now three say ‘green,’ three ‘teal,’ and three ‘moss-colored.” The first scenario would have a higher degree of codability than the second, because more people were in agreement about how to refer to that shade of green.

What they found was that the cultures they studied were wildly variable in the codability of different senses. English-speakers were more consistent in describing hearing and sight (specifically, color and shape) than smell, touch, or taste, but speakers of other languages, like Tzeltal and Farsi, were more consistent in identifying taste. The Semai speakers of Malaysia and the Mian speakers of Papua New Guinea didn’t participate in the taste portion at all, the researchers note, “primarily due to fear of witchcraft.”

The one overarching pattern the researchers reported was that participants across all languages were pretty bad at consistently identifying smells. But there were still some language-speakers that coded smell more easily than other senses, suggesting that there is still a great deal of variability.

“I think this work shows the possibilities there are to develop our neglected senses further,” says Majid. “Imagine if as well as our video- and audio-recording techniques, we had smell and taste devices in our pockets.”