Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Apparently not. Words may very well influence how we interpret smell and other sensations. To test this idea, Oxford University experimental psychologist Edmund Rolls subjected a group of people to a cheesy aroma while simultaneously flashing before their eyes either the phrase “body odor” or “cheddar cheese.” The smellers were then asked to rate the pleasantness of the scent. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who saw the latter phrase were generally pleased with what they sniffed; the others, not so much.
But the clincher came when Rolls analyzed fMRI brain images of the test subjects, which had been taken during the experiment. The scans revealed different patterns of activity in the secondary olfactory cortex—a collection of neurons that mediate pleasant sensory responses to smells and tastes. In the brains of those who liked the cheddar smell, the scans showed much more action than in the brains of those turned off by body odor. “The word label influences how the brain actually responds in its olfactory processing areas,” says Rolls. “We’re finding that words affect how you feel because they’re influencing the emotional part of the brain.” So if roses were actually called “stinkweeds,” he says, perhaps they wouldn’t be so well loved—at least not by our noses.