With the help of magnetic resonance imaging, scientists from the Universitat Jaume I and the Cognition and Brain Sciences unit at the Medical Research Council in the UK observed that reading words with strong connotations to odours not only triggers activity in the brain areas related to language, but also those linked to the sense of smell.
Volunteers read 60 words related to smells (either pleasant or unpleasant) that were jumbled up with another 60 words with no aromatic association. At the same time, images of their brain activity were registered using magnetic resonance.
Findings showed that reading the words associated with a smell triggered activation of the area in the brain that processes olfactory information. More specifically, the areas involved were the primary olfactory cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex.
In contrast, when the volunteers read words with no aromatic connotations, these regions of the brain remained inactive.
These findings could have implications for food manufacturers in terms of labelling. Consumers increasingly use labelling to inform purchasing choices, and packaging is one of the most important tools food companies have of differentiating their product on the store shelf.
By tapping into and emphasising sensory-loaded words such as cinnamon, jasmine or lemon, food and beverage firms could improve their chances of product success.
The results of the study support the contention that when the sensory information produced by the smell of, say, cinnamon is stored in the brain and we label it 'cinnamon', a link is set up between the groups of neurons that store the two types of data. That is why, on smelling a stick of cinnamon its name suddenly comes to mind and, conversely, when we read the name we know what smell it refers to.
"The fact that primary olfactory areas are activated by words with olfactory semantic associations supports the idea that sensory information linked to the referent of a word is important for its neuronal representation," said the research team led by Julio Gonzalez, Cesar Avila and Alfonso Barros, who are all scientists working in the Department of Psychology at the Universitat Jaume I.
According to the authors of the study, in which the radiology company Eresa also collaborated, all these data suggest that the meaning of words is not confined solely to areas of the brain concerned with language, but rather "it seems that semantic representations are distributed systematically throughout the entire cerebral cortex".