The muted sense: neurocognitive limitations of olfactory language

Trends Cogn Sci. 2015 Jun;19(6):314-21. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2015.04.007. Epub 2015 May 12.


Most people find it profoundly difficult to name familiar smells. This difficulty persists even when perceptual odor processing and visual object naming are unimpaired, implying deficient sensory-specific interactions with the language system. Here we synthesize recent behavioral and neuroimaging data to develop a biologically informed framework for olfactory lexical processing in the human brain. Our central premise is that the difficulty in naming common objects through olfactory (compared with visual) stimulation is the end result of cumulative effects occurring at three successive stages of the olfactory language pathway: object perception, lexical-semantic integration, and verbalization. Understanding the neurocognitive mechanisms by which the language network interacts with olfaction can yield unique insights into the elusive nature of olfactory naming.

Keywords: language; olfaction; perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Olfactory Perception / physiology*
  • Pattern Recognition, Physiological / physiology*
  • Speech / physiology*