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See Inside October 2005

Ooh, That Smell



A rose by any other name might not smell as sweet. Edmund Rolls, a psychologist at the University of Oxford, has found that cognition—high-order brain processing—can influence perception of smell at its most primitive level.

Rolls presented 12 subjects with an ambiguous odor, which he says “might have been thought to be Brie” but was labeled either “cheddar cheese” or “body odor.” Subjects rated the smell as much more pleasant when it was labeled cheese. In magnetic resonance images, brain regions involved in early olfactory processing were activated more strongly by the positive label. “The big conclusion,” Rolls says, “is that language can reach right down into the emotional system.”

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