Odor Perception Response Influenced By Cultural Context

Odor perception

Even when two cultures share the same language and many traditions, their reactions to the same smells can be different, researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute have found.

The study, a partnership with researchers from the Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre in France, was led by clinical neuropsychologist Jelena Djordjevic.

Her group at the Neurological Institute tested subjects in Quebec for their subjective impressions of different scents, while their collaborators in France did the same with French subjects. They selected six scents: anise, lavender, maple, wintergreen, rose and strawberry.

Odor Perception In French

Participants were asked to smell each scent first without knowing what the scent is, then again after being told its name. The subjects rated the scent on pleasantness, intensity, familiarity, and edibility. The scientists also measured the subjects’ non-verbal reactions to each scent, including sniffing, activity of facial muscles, respiration and heart rate.

The researchers found significant differences between ratings of the same odors among the French and French-Canadian subjects.

For example, the French gave wintergreen much lower pleasantness ratings than French-Canadians. In France, wintergreen is used more in medicinal products than in Canada, where it is found more in candy.

Canadians were more familiar with scents of maple and wintergreen than the French, while in turn people from France were more familiar with the scent of lavender.

When asked to describe odors, Canadians were better at describing maple and wintergreen, while people from France were better at describing lavender. Anise was rated similarly in two cultures but was described more often as “licorice” in Quebec and as “anise” in France.

Cultural Differences

Providing the names of the odors to subjects increased their ratings of familiarity, pleasantness and edibility. Furthermore, cultural differences disappeared or decreased when the names were provided.

This was true even for the non-verbal reactions to scents.

The findings suggest that mental representations activated by odor names are more similar between cultures than the mental representations activated by sensory information alone. Cultural differences in perception of odors are subtle, and are easily reduced by the mere presence of odor names.

This study reinforces the idea that our brain’s processing of odor is not simply its reaction to the chemical compounds that make up the scent. It is influenced both by our previous experience with the scent and our knowledge of what the scent is.

“In psychology, we call these effects ‘top-down influences’ and we were excited to further develop our understanding of them”, says Djordjevic. “Even basic processes, such as smelling a scent, are influenced by where we come from and what we know. The sense of smell occupies a very old part of our brain. Studying this old sensory system helps us understand how we have evolved as a species. Furthermore, olfactory loss is common in normal aging and also in many neurological conditions. Studying these disorders can provide us with clues about the disease mechanisms and possible ways to treat them.”

While previous studies have come to similar conclusions, this study is unique in that it compared two cultures which share the same language and have similar traditions. This eliminated the possibility of language being a cause of the different reactions between groups.

Camille Ferdenzi, Pauline Joussain, Bérengère Digard, Lucie Luneau, Jelena Djordjevic, Moustafa Bensafi
Individual Differences in Verbal and Non-Verbal Affective Responses to Smells: Influence of Odor Label Across Cultures
Chem Senses (2016) bjw098. DOI:

Image: Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe, MD, cardiologist.