Imagining scents

Recently reading Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations, I discovered a few things. The first was that I regularly experience tactile hallucinations in the form of the notorious “phantom ring” of my cellphone, which is usually set to vibrate. (ETA: I knew I experienced them before I read the book, of course–it just never struck me to say, “Crap, I’m hallucinating again.”)

The other, and the subject of this OP, was that I’m apparently pretty special in being able to imagine scents. “The ability to imagine smells,” Sacks writes, “in normal circumstances, is not that common–most people cannot imagine smells with any vividness, even though they may be very good at imagining sights or sounds.” He goes on to quote a correspondent, who is apparently quite good at it, though he has to link it to “a specific instance” connected with the scent he seeks to imagine.

Me? All I have to do is put my mind to it and then it’s there. Roses? Bam. Onions? Done. Nothing to it. And I’m only fair-to-middlin’ at sight and sound both, though I used to be much better at the former as a child, and still have my moments. (With sufficient concentration, I ain’t half-bad at imagining tactile sensations, though it’s not something I can do casually. Taste, unsurprisingly, is very similar to scent.)

Given that I find this to be simple and straightforward, I’m a bit dubious of Sacks’s claim that it’s uncommon. So I’m turning to you folks, who are certainly more reliable than the brilliant Dr. Sacks, right? :wink: What’s your experience with imagining scents?

I can do it, pretty vividly. Funny you should start this thread, I was talking about it with the SO over the weekend. I was shocked she couldn’t do it, and she thought it was bizarre that I do.

I cannot recall scents just by thinking of the smell itself. But if I recall memories, and there are scents associated with those memories, THEN I can recall the scents.

And the opposite is true: if I smell something that reminds me of a past event, I can then recall the event in detail.

Being able to recall tastes is quite handy when you’re trying to diet. Just pretend you ARE eating whatever it is you’re craving. Think about it, eating it, smelling it, swallowing it, for at least one minute. Then move on to whatever you were doing; I find my craving subsides substantially, if not entirely, when I do that.

I just read that chapter last night, and as soon as I saw the thread title, I knew you were referring to it. :slight_smile: So I tried imagining scents too, and found to my dismay that I can do it only faintly. I thought of rose attar, orange peel, garlic sautéing in olive oil, baking bread. All I can summon up are vague impressions of the smells. Like seeing a dim, hazy figure only in outline with no details.

I can call up many scents easily and vividly.

I’m very scent-oriented, though. I tend to cook by smell, and scents are very strong memory triggers for me. I sometimes wonder how much that was influenced by having terrible eyesight as a child; with everything more than a few feet away fading into a blur, I experienced the world rather more through sound and scent than through sight.

My first thought was: huh?! people can’t imagine smells?

I can. I just imagined all the smells that were mentioned.

What about other senses, like pressure? Can most people imagine what it feels like on a plane or something? Or imagine hunger?

Cooking by smell, growing up with poor eyesight, and being blessed with an acute sense of smell are true of me too. I love all kinds of scents, perfumes, incense, food scents, the smell of the forest, and everything. Also using smell to detect when something is not quite right. I’ve spent my life in an intensely olfactory world. I can often recall a scent within context, but what I recall is more the subjective feeling associated with the perception than the smell itself. I find a separation between perception and recall the way I don’t with the other senses.

I do smells better than most people, although not as vividly as I can recall sounds.

I have a hell of a bad time trying to remember what anything LOOKS LIKE when I’m not looking at it. I can do colors by themselves but the shapes part of things gives me fits.

I have no trouble imagining any of the senses. As far as scents are concerned: I remember exactly what diethyl ether smells like, even though I smelled it only once in my life. It was the anesthetic used when I had my tonsils out at the age of 7. That was 60 years ago.

Scents are easy, as are tastes. Phantom cell-phone buzz - I’ve read that that’s common, but I’ve never experienced it. Imagining and “hearing” a phantom door-bell ring? That’s pretty common for me.

Sacks is mistaken. Indeed, there is now a respectable scientific literature on olfactory imagery. For example:

Freeman, W.J. (1983). The Physiological Basis of Mental Images. Biological Psychiatry (18) 1107-1125. (Although it is not apparent from the title, this is, in fact, essentially a theory of olfactory imagery.)

Carrasco, M. & Ridout, J.B. (1993). Olfactory Perception and Olfactory Imagery: A multidimensional analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (19) 287-301. (This directly confronts skepticism about olfactory imagery, and provides experimental evidence that it is real.)

Bensafi, M., Porter, J., Pouliot, S., Mainland, J., Johnson, B., Zelano, C., Young, N., Bremner, E., Aframian, D., Kahn, R., & Sobel, N. (2003). Olfactomotor Activity During Imagery Mimics that During Perception. Nature Neuroscience (6) 1142-1144.

Djordjevic, J., Zatorre, R.J., Petrides, M., Boyle, J.A., & Jones-Gotman, M. (2005). Functional Neuroimaging of Odor Imagery. Neuroimage (24) 791-801.

Schifferstein, H.N.J. (2008-9). Comparing Mental Imagery Across the Sensory Modalities. Imagination, Cognition and Personality (28 #4) 371-388.

Or, for something truly wacky from the 19th century:

Galton, F. (1894). Arithmetic by Smell. Psychological Review (1) 61-62.

Thanks for all of those! :slight_smile: I don’t really have time to read through them all (as usual, my being on the boards means that I should be doing something else). Do they conclude that most people can imagine smell? Because that it exists isn’t something I doubted, as I can imagine smell. But I was surprised that others apparently have trouble with it.

Can you, or someone who has read the cites, elaborate a little for the benefit of the naughty procrastinator who really shouldn’t be on the Dope at all?

Well, they do not address that question directly - none of them are a survey of a large, randomly selected population - although I think the one by Carrasco & Ridout strongly suggests that most people can. In any case, what people say about what they can or can’t imagine is notoriously unreliable. You need to actually test them to see what is really going on (and it is not generally practical to do that with large numbers of people). Nevertheless, all those experiments rely on the subjects who are being tested having olfactory imagery, and there is no indication that the subjects had to be specially selected (as would be the case if a high proportion of people actually could not imagine smells). (Schifferstein’s paper, though, does suggest that, for most people, olfactory imagery tends to be weaker than imagery in other sense modes.)

The notion that olfactory imagery does not exist is probably a hangover from the very negative attitudes towards mental imagery in general that were prevalent in psychology (and philosophy) from the early twentieth century until the 1960s and '70s. Some thought that people claiming to experience imagery were just confused, others that only children and dumb (or poorly educated) people experienced it, and even those who accepted that it was a real phenomenon mostly took the attitude that it was too subjective to be studied by science, and probably of no real significance anyway. That all changed in the '60s and '70s when a number of ingenious experiments demonstrated that visual imagery, in particular, had very significant psychological effects. Since then, visual imagery has been quite a big deal in experimental cognitive psychology, and many, many different experiments have been done to investigate it. Anyone with any sort of background in psychological science knows about this. There has been much less study of imagery in other modes, however, so someone who does not pay close attention to the sub-field could be forgiven for not knowing about the relatively few experimental studies of olfactory imagery that have been done, and perhaps for assuming that the belief that it either does not exist, or if it does it is rare, still persists.

I know i cant imagine smells. Just the idea of them, the description of them, but not the smell.

How about this: im pretty good at remembering where i read something in a book. I know if it was in the middle or end, on the left or right page, and onthe top or bottom of thst page. So, am i still smart? :wink:

The deprecation of smell is also a cultural phenomenon. Mentioning or talking about a “bad smell” is frowned upon.

As to OP, I cook fairly seriously and enjoy reading cookbooks somewhat akin to reading a musical score. But give me a cookbook on Indian food, say, and I’m stumped.

Thanks njtt! Very interesting. I was thinking about wether my imagination of scent is weaker than eg visual imagery. At first it seems like it might be, but then, sometimes the visual can be the same: when you know the way something looks, but when you send your imagination to explore the details it goes blurry somehow. Scent, IME, can be kind of like that. First my imagination of the smell comes through loud and clear, then as I want to explore it my “inner nose” gets confused…

Is there anything in all that literature about my questions up thread (not wanting to hijack, but it seems somewhat relevant)? Can people imagine other sensations, like pressure or hunger? I think I sort of can…

Yeah, true, I’m pretty much a dumb, confused kid :cool:

Well, as I mentioned earlier, I can do tactile imagination pretty well if I focus on it. It’s not easy though.

I can remember smells quite vividly .I just did it off the top of my head and it feels like my nose is burnt out. Try them for yourself and see if you can do it.

  1. A smoky camp fire.
  2. Polo cologne (for those of of us that grew up in the 80’s) but substitute another one if you don’t know that one.
  3. Fresh roses
  4. Diesel fuel

It seems pretty easy to me. I am getting a headache just by imagining those in sequence.

Wow. I can remember “English Leather” and “Jade East,” both of which I haven’t smelled since the mid-60s. And “Lilac Vegetal,” that my barber used to put in my hair. Also, the “Old Spice” that my father wore back in the 50s . . . and what he smelled like when he wasn’t wearing it.