Previous research has shown that when people understand language they activate the brain’s perception and action systems – known as “mental simulation”. A new paper published by Laura Speed and Asifa Majid however suggests that mental simulation of olfactory information may not be possible.
Mental simulation of olfactory information was tested in a behavioural experiment, and compared with mental simulation of sound. Participants had to hold an odor-related or sound-related word in mind while they smelled an odor or heard sound, and rated its intensity. They then had to recall the word. At the end of the experiment recognition memory for the odors and sounds was tested, and the items were rated for pleasantness and familiarity. It was found that recall of sound-related words and sound recognition was affected by the association between the meaning of the word and the real sound. This demonstrates mental simulation of sound. However, memory for odor-related words and odors did not differ across experimental conditions. Instead, odor-related words affected explicit ratings of odor intensity and familiarity, suggesting effects at a lexical-semantic level.
Overall, the results support mental simulation of sound but not odor. This work adds to the evidence for weak odor language in the West, and suggests that exploring less dominant modalities is important for theories of language and cognition.
Speed, L. J., & Majid, A. (in press). An Exception to Mental Simulation: No Evidence for Embodied Odor Language. Cognitive Science.