Neural mechanisms of odour imagery induced by non-figurative visual cues

Neuropsychologia. 2024 Apr 15:196:108836. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2024.108836. Epub 2024 Feb 17.


Odour imagery, the ability to experience smell when an appropriate stimulus is absent, has widely been documented as being particularly difficult. However, previous studies have shown the beneficial effect of visual cues (e.g., pictures or words) to facilitate performance in numerous tasks of olfactory nature. Therefore, the use of visual cues to evoke odours seems relevant. In this study, our interest is directed towards non-figurative coloured arrangements, which result from a patented technology and aim at chromatically representing any smell from its chemical composition and sensory description. The aim of this study was to characterise the neural mechanisms of odour imagery facilitated by these non-figurative coloured arrangements. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we recorded and compared hemodynamic responses during odour imagery facilitated by non-figurative coloured arrangements and pictures. Our findings reveal that the use of non-figurative coloured arrangements during odour imagery solicits olfactory and non-olfactory brain regions (orbitofrontal cortex, insula, hippocampus, thalamus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and supplementary motor area), which are mainly involved in olfactory processing and multimodal integration. Moreover, very similar cortical activity was found between the use of non-figurative coloured arrangements and pictures during odour imagery, with increased activity in the supplementary motor area during the use of coloured arrangements only. Overall, non-figurative coloured arrangements could become a robust tool to visually evoke odours without requiring prior familiarity with the depicted odour. Future studies should use psychometric measures to determine the relationships between brain activation, odour imagery ability and vividness of the generated odour images.

Keywords: Colour; Functional MRI; Mental imagery; Olfaction; Vision.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Cues*
  • Humans
  • Imagery, Psychotherapy
  • Odorants*
  • Smell / physiology