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Synaesthesia or Vivid Imagery? A Single Case fMRI Study of Visually Induced Olfactory Perception

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The most common form of synaesthesia is grapheme–colour synaesthesia. However, rarer forms of synaesthesia also exist, such as word–gustatory and olfactory–gustatory synaesthesia, whereby a word or smell will induce a specific. In this study we describe a single individual (LJ) who experiences a concurrent olfactory stimulus when presented with congruent visual images. For some visual stimuli, he perceives a strong and automatic olfactory percept, which has existed throughout his life. In this study, we explore whether his experiences are a new form of synaesthesia or simply vivid imagery. Unlike other forms of synaesthesia, the concurrent odour is congruent to the visual inducer. For example, a photograph of dress shoes will elicit the smell of leather. We presented LJ and several control participants with 75 images of everyday objects. Their task was to indicate the strength of any perceived odours induced by the visual images. LJ rated several of the images as inducing a concurrent odour, while controls did not have any such percept. Images that LJ reported as inducing the strongest odours were used, along with colour-matched control images, in the context of an fMRI experiment. Participants were given a one-back task to maintain attention. A block-design odour localizer was presented to localize the piriform cortex (primary olfactory cortex). We found an increased BOLD response in the piriform cortex for the odour-inducing images compared to the control images in LJ. There was no difference in BOLD response between these two stimulus types in the control participants. A subsequent olfactory imagery task did not elicit enhanced activity in the piriform cortex in LJ, suggesting his perceptual experiences may not be based on olfactory imagery.

Affiliations: 1: 1Institute of Medical Psychology, Goethe-University of Frankfurt, Frankfurt am Main, Germany; 2: 2Department of Clinical Pharmacology, Goethe-University of Frankfurt, Frankfurt am Main, Germany


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