Synesthetes: Why We Visualize Smells The Way We Do

First Posted: Oct 16, 2015 09:01 AM EDT

Australian researchers conducted an experiment to determine how much conceptual and perceptual factors contribute to what synesthetes 'see' when they smell, according to a news release.

In their experiment, the researchers presented six olfactory visual synesthetes, people for whom odors elicit a visual experience, with a range of odorants by nose and by mouth. The participants were asked to identify each smell, listing its attributes and illustrate their experience using a computer program or pens and paper.

A team of judges then evaluated how similar the participants' images of the different odors were. The researchers found that images relating to flavors that the participants identified were the most consistently similar, according to the news release.

Even when the participants inconsistently named items, the participants visualizations were more similar than those relating to completely different odors.

This experiment showed the researchers that the main driving force behind the visualizations was dependant on hedonic information - how much the participant liked or disliked the odor.

"One possibility is that the odor name alone could evoke these complex visual images, but this does not seem to be the case with our synesthetes. They all reported that the experience occurred on smelling the odorant, not when talking about it," the authors wrote. "Our data suggest that odor identification is important in supporting the generation of a reliable image, which is consistent with access to meaning being a key driver of synesthetic experience."

This study enabled the researchers to determine whether synesthetes perceive, identify and process flavors and odors all around us.

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