Olfactory imagery: is exactly what it smells like

Abstract

Mental Imagery, whereby we experience aspect of a perceptual scene or perceptual object in the absence of direct sensory stimulation is ubiquitous. Often the existence of mental imagery is demonstrated by asking one’s reader to volitionally generate a visual object, such as closing ones eyes and imagining an apple. However, mental imagery also arises in auditory, tactile, interoceptive, and olfactory cases. A number of influential philosophical theories have attempted to explain mental imagery in terms of belief-based forms of representation using the Dependence Thesis, dependence upon means of access, such as enactivism, or in terms of the similarity of content with perceptual processing. The focus of this paper concerns the later approach and in particular assessing if Nanay’s promissory note that his theory is applicable to modalities other than vision, such as smell, seems likely to be of theoretical tender. The thesis argued for in this paper is that olfactory imagery exists and is best accounted for by considering it as a type of perceptual processing with a unique representational format relative to the olfactory perceptual modality. The paper concludes by summarizing the applicability of Nanay’s theory of mental imagery for olfaction and suggests some further issues that arise when transitioning to multi-modal mental imagery.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Throughout the paper claims and statements about olfaction are relativized to orthonasal olfaction (arising from the front of the nose) and are not meant to include retronasal olfaction (from the back of the throat) unless explicitly stated.

  2. 2.

    Nanay’s (2010) account of amodal completion as a form of mental imagery is left aside in what follows. While there are examples of olfactory phenomena that might satisfy amodal perception, both the examples and the claim that these are a form of mental imagery are far from controversial. For the sake of brevity (olfactory) amodal completion and its relation to mental imagery are not covered within this paper.

  3. 3.

    Pistoia et al. (2015) claimed to have provided evidence for the existence of olfactory imagery in individuals with minimal states of consciousness using EEG recording. They employed a method requiring the subject voluntarily generating olfactory imagery and a relaxation task. Their data clearly indicates that the relaxation task works, but their claim in discussion that they have shown imagery is unconvincing. Given the questionable status of their findings with regard to olfactory imagery the claimed conclusion is mentioned, but not employed as evidence for a further variety of olfactory mental imagery.

  4. 4.

    The depiction of the different approaches is done in very broad strokes, as the primary focus of the paper is Nanay’s account of mental imagery and if it can accommodate olfactory imagery. To maintain this focus and for the sake of brevity a detailed analysis of each theory will not be provided, as the criticisms will prove equally problematic for more fine-grained nuanced versions of the theories within each approach.

  5. 5.

    Nanay does not claim that all hallucinations count as mental imagery. Rather, only those hallucination where something goes wrong between the input and early cortical processing. While these are in the vast majority, some hallucinations occur where something goes wrong before the input reaches the sense organ or where something goes wrong in higher level processing—these on his account do not count as mental imagery.

  6. 6.

    The claim that sensorimotor contingencies supply essential components of mental imagery and are evidence that these are perceptual process will not be further explored, because Sect. 2 nicely summarized these in an manner that shows they fit Nanay’s theory.

  7. 7.

    See Young (2014) for fuller discussion of the use of secondary measures for determining sameness of olfactory quality across perceptual and conscious states.

  8. 8.

    One aspect of the study that might be slightly questionable was their inclusion of descriptions of flavors and tastes (they control for purely gustatory experiences). Given the sheer amount of time we spend attending to and consuming food and drink, it would make sense that this would be the more prevalent form of olfactory dream experiences. However, none of the other studies thus surveyed included retronasal olfactory qualities (Henkin et al. 2000, 2013a, b) as these are treated as phantageusia—a separate form of hallucinations with its own perceptual qualities.

  9. 9.

    The section focuses upon memory retrieval in the generation of olfactory imagery and not attentional modulation. There is research indicating that olfactory attention shifts the nature of memory encoding and storage such that attended odorant's are encoded and stored in different cortical areas than unattended odors (Carlson et al. 2018), but for the sake of brevity memory serves as a better test case for Nanay’s account of mental imagery.

  10. 10.

    For a review of those theories of smell that would find this highly questionable see Young (2019b).

  11. 11.

    Endorsing this modulation relative to a modality might require further clarification if the attentional and memory processing must be relative to a modality or universally shared across perceptual systems. However, the issue is mute for olfaction, as it primarily utilizes its own memory processing system (Zelano et al. 2009).

  12. 12.

    Perhaps our early life experiences of odors also have a preponderance of unpleasant smells and these are encoded as autobiographical, yet these are not elicited under experimental conditions, because these do not employ unpleasant odors as primes or lures. Yet, even outside of experimental settings the occurrence of highly vivid disgusting and unpleasant autobiographic memories are not reported. Humans might be generally thought to repress past repugnant experiences, thus we might have greater difficulty retrieving unpleasant memories from the first decade of life, such as the first time we vomited or defecated in our underwear. However, this alternative explanation is at odds with autobiographic memories from other modalities – can you not easily retrieve a memory of childhood guilt or the frustration of having your willful desires obstructed and hindered by a sibling or parent.

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Acknowledgements

Previous versions of this paper have been presented at a workshop on olfactory imagery hosted by the Centre for Philosophical Psychology at the University of Antwerp, at Jonas Olofsson research group in the Department of Psychology at Stockholm University, and at Johan Lundström’s research group in the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet. I would like to thank all of the members of the audience on these occasions for their helpful questions and feedback. In particular, I would like to thank Barry Smith, Jonas Olofsson, Johan Lundström, Artin Arshamian, Maria Larsson, and Bence Nanay for their comments on this research project.

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Young, B.D. Olfactory imagery: is exactly what it smells like. Philos Stud 177, 3303–3327 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-019-01371-4

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Keywords

  • Mental imagery
  • Olfactory imagery
  • Smell
  • Perception
  • Olfactory quality