If it stinks like body odor and you're trying to sell it, just call it cheese.
That's the message from a new study that finds people perceive a scent differently based on the word that goes with the smell.
Researchers exposed test subjects to the smell of cheddar cheese. Some saw labels that read "cheddar cheese." Others were shown labels that read "body odor." Those who were told they were smelling cheese rated the scent more pleasant.
The study also imaged people's brains during follow-up tests. The results were as complex as, well, the brain.
The cheese label activated a certain part of the brain that processes olfactory information (the signals coming from the nose). When people smelled clean air that was also labeled as cheese, the same brain area was activated, but not as much. When they saw the body odor label, that brain location was not activated, regardless of whether they were sniffing cheese or clean air.
The plucky test subjects also got to enjoy the smell of properly labeled flowers and burned plastic, showing that different parts of the brain note pleasant smells versus unpleasant.
The work was led by Edmund Rolls of the University of Oxford.
It's not clear if words cause people to imagine a smell or if it just affects how their brains process odors. But this much is now clear:
"High-level cognitive inputs, such as the sight of a word, can influence the activity in brain regions that are activated by olfactory stimuli," Rolls and his colleagues write in the May 19 issue of the journal Neuron.