Crossmodal correspondences between odors and contingent features: odors, musical notes, and geometrical shapes

Psychon Bull Rev. 2013 Oct;20(5):878-96. doi: 10.3758/s13423-013-0397-0.


Olfactory experiences represent a domain that is particularly rich in crossmodal associations. Whereas associations between odors and tastes, or other properties of their typical sources such as color or temperature, can be straightforwardly explained by associative learning, other matchings are much harder to explain in these terms, yet surprisingly are shared across individuals: The majority of people, for instance, associate certain odors and auditory features, such as pitch (Belkin, Martin, Kemp, & Gilbert, Psychological Science 8:340-342, 1997; Crisinel & Spence, Chemical Senses 37:151-158, 2012b) or geometrical shapes (Hanson-Vaux, Crisinel, & Spence, Chemical Senses 38:161-166, 2013; Seo, Arshamian, et al., Neuroscience Letters 478:175-178, 2010). If certain odors might indeed have been encountered while listening to certain pieces of music or seeing certain geometrical shapes, these encounters are very unlikely to have been statistically more relevant than others; for this reason, associative learning from regular exposure is ruled out, and thus alternative explanations in terms of metaphorical mappings are usually defended. Here we argue that these associations are not primarily conceptual or linguistic, but are grounded in structural perceptual or neurological determinants. These cases of crossmodal correspondences established between contingent environmental features can be explained as amodal, indirect, and transitive mappings across modalities. Surprising associations between odors and contingent sensory features can be investigated as genuine cases of crossmodal correspondences, akin to other widespread cases of functional correspondences that hold, for instance, between auditory and visual features, and can help reveal the structural determinants weighing on the acquisition of these crossmodal associations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Association*
  • Hearing / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Music / psychology*
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*