Superior Olfactory Language and Cognition in Odor-Color Synaesthesia

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Olfaction is often considered a vestigial sense in humans, demoted throughout evolution to make way for the dominant sense of vision. This perspective on olfaction is reflected in how we think and talk about smells in the West, with odor imagery and odor language reported to be difficult. In the present study we demonstrate odor cognition is superior in odor-color synaesthesia, where there are additional sensory connections to odor concepts. Synaesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which input in 1 modality leads to involuntary perceptual associations. Semantic accounts of synaesthesia posit synaesthetic associations are mediated by activation of inducing concepts. Therefore, synaesthetic associations may strengthen conceptual representations. To test this idea, we ran 6 odor-color synaesthetes and 17 matched controls on a battery of tasks exploring odor and color cognition. We found synaesthetes outperformed controls on tests of both odor and color discrimination, demonstrating for the first time enhanced perception in both the inducer (odor) and concurrent (color) modality. So, not only do synaesthetes have additional perceptual experiences in comparison to controls, their primary perceptual experience is also different. Finally, synaesthetes were more consistent and accurate at naming odors. We propose synaesthetic associations to odors strengthen odor concepts, making them more differentiated (facilitating odor discrimination) and easier to link with lexical representations (facilitating odor naming). In summary, we show for the first time that both odor language and perception is enhanced in people with synaesthetic associations to odors.

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