May 20, 2005

Science Sniffs Out the Secrets of Scent

Simply labeling something as 'smelly' may make it so, study finds

HealthDay News -- A rose by any other name would smell as sweet -- or would it?

British neurologists report that the naming of an odor strongly influences a person's perception of that scent.

For example, individuals were asked to sniff a cheddar cheese odor that was labeled either "cheddar cheese" or "body odor." Participants uniformly rated the odor as being much more pleasant when it was labeled "cheddar cheese," compared to when it was labeled "body odor."

Naming an odor may even stimulate specific brain areas, the University of Oxford team found. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brain activity of participants as each was presented with a variety of specifically labeled odors.

Labeling the odor as "cheddar cheese" produced activation in a specific area of the brain region that processes olfactory (smell) information, the researchers report in the May 19 issue of Neuron. This same area was activated even when the participants sampled clean air erroneously labeled as "cheddar cheese."

However, the "body odor" label failed to produce a response in the same brain region.

Whether printed words caused the study participants to imagine a smell or influenced the way their brains processed the odors is unclear, the researchers report. Whatever the mechanism, "the important new point being made in this paper is that high-level cognitive inputs, such as the sight of a word, can influence the activity in brain regions that are activated by olfactory stimuli," the authors wrote.

More information

University of Oxford

The Nemours Foundation has more about smells.