Associations to smell are more pleasant than to sound

J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2001 Aug;23(4):484-9. doi: 10.1076/jcen.23.4.484.1236.


To assess and compare the quantitive and qualitative aspects of verbal associations of olfaction and audition, we conducted two verbal category fluency tasks, one consisting of the generation of 'smelling' associations and the other of 'auditory' associations. The responses of the 40 subjects on these fluency tasks were rated as pleasant or unpleasant by themselves as well as by an independent group of 40 subjects. In addition, all 80 healthy, right-handed subjects rated their momentary emotional state on a visual analog scale. The mean number of words generated by the 40 subjects did not differ between the two tasks, and in both tasks pleasant associations were more frequent than unpleasant associations. However, for all subjects, the proportion of pleasant associations was significantly higher in the olfactory compared to the auditory fluency task. The finding of more pleasant associations in both tasks confirms previous reports, but the pronounced effect in the olfactory task suggests that odors may be more hedonically coded than other sensory modalities, i.e., audition. Although there is evidence that the majority of odors are initially perceived as unpleasant, when retrieved from memory, pleasant connotations seem to dominate. The possible mechanisms for this dissociation are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect
  • Auditory Perception*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation*
  • Paired-Associate Learning*
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Semantics
  • Smell*