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Smelling images. Tasting images



Some people report perceiving smells or tastes when they see certain images (photographs, videos, etc.). In some cases this may be synesthesia. However, it would not be considered synesthesia in the following cases:

- if it only happens very occasionally (just a few times in one’s lifetime)

- if the olfactory or gustatory concurrents are varied in response to the same image

- if the smell or taste evoked by the image is the one it would have in real life (a photograph of someone smoking smells like tobacco smoke, for example) (see the description of hyperphantasia below)

- if the smell is not produced on looking at a certain image but is perceived suddenly with no apparent relation to anything in particular: there is no possible source of a real smell and no concept, image, sound, thought, etc. that could be related to it as a synesthetic inducer. These “ghost smells” could be result of a condition called phantosmia, which consists of olfactory hallucinations, uncommon but normally benign, in which various smells such as burning rubber, cigarette smoke, chemicals, rotten food or sometimes more pleasant aromas are suddenly perceived “out of the blue” for a certain period of time. More information on phantosmia here.


Olfactory or gustatory hyperphantasia, and not synesthesia, might be the reason

Some people (synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike) have an exceptional olfactory or gustatory memory and/or a great ability to recreate smells or flavours in their mind. In fact, some can even physically smell or taste them when they do this. It is called olfactory hyperphantasia or gustatory hyperphantasia. If a person with this ability looks at a picture that strongly suggests a smell or taste to them, they could get the feeling that they can smell or taste it, or even actually physically smell or taste it as if it was there in front of them. This mental recreation of smells is called "olfactorisation" (I'm not aware of any specific term for it in the case of tastes). Anyhow, in this case it corresponds to the real smell or the real taste: a photograph of oranges would smell of oranges, for example.


 

So when could smelling or tasting images be synesthesia?

The possibility exists of this being an uncommon type of synesthesia, which in the case of smells could be called “concept-smell” or “conceptual-olfactory” synesthesia and in the case of tastes “concept-taste” or “conceptual-gustatory” synesthesia, if the smells/tastes evoked by the images are consistent (same image = same smell or taste every time) and occur reasonably frequently and not just very occasionally.

The smell or taste perceived would not be an exact match to the concept depicted in the image, as olfactory/gustatory concurrents are idiosyncratic (different for each synesthete), as tends to be the case for synesthetic concurrents in general.

As the smell or taste in question is triggered by a concept, it might also sometimes be produced on hearing words referring to that specific concept, or even just by thinking about it.

Go to the page on concept-smell and concept-taste synesthesia


An example of such a concept could be personality, perceived by looking at a picture of a person’s face. Personality-smell and personality-taste synesthesia exist, but usually occur with people the synesthete sees in real life. Hypothetically they could occur either with people seen in real life, in both real life and images, or only on seeing images.

Go to the page on personality-smell and personality-taste synesthesia


If what triggers the olfactory/gustatory concurrent is the colour of the image being observed, it could be a case of colour-to-smell or colour-to-taste synesthesia, which are also uncommon types and normally only occur in people who have many different types of synesthesia, strongly expressed.

Go to the page on colour-to-smell synesthesia

Go to the page on colour-to-taste synesthesia


Some people have emotion-smell or emotion-taste synesthesia, and if the image observed causes them to feel a certain very specific emotion it can give rise to their olfactory or gustatory concurrent for that particular emotion. The aroma or flavour could even be caused by perceiving an emotion in another person, by looking at their face in either a picture or in real life, if the observer has perceived emotion-to-smell synesthesia, a type that is evoked on intuitively perceiving the emotions of other people.

Go to the page on emotion-smell synesthesia

Go to the page on emotion-taste synesthesia

Go to the page on perceived emotion-to-colour and other concurrents including smell and taste


All of the types of synesthesia mentioned here are very uncommon.


Here are some descriptions written by people who smell or taste images and could be considered to have a type of related synesthesia:


"Whenever I look at a face in a picture or in real life, I get a smell that feels like it was created just in my nose and throat. Sometimes I don’t notice it and it’s very hard to tell it’s there, but sometimes it’s so intense that it’s borderline taste and it can feel like my nose is burning. (...) The smells are generally very random. Every person’s face has a different smell, and sometimes the scent changes when I look at them from a different angle or something."

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)


"I can smell pictures. (...) Like pictures of living things not drawings. I see a picture of a dog and I smell grass and ammonia. I see a picture of a person and I smell the same things each and every time, and it’s normally based on the first picture I see of them. For example, Meg Ryan, I smell cheese. Harrison Ford, I smell boot leather."

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)


"Personally the images that I enjoy the most are the ones that smell like buttered toast, which usually have lots of yellow and blue in them. There is this one youtuber that plays saxophone, and looking at her makes me smell this really delicious raspberry/strawberry yogurt."

(Source: This comment on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)


Go to the page on colour-to-smell synesthesia

Go to the page on colour-to-taste synesthesia

Go to the page on concept-smell and concept-taste synesthesia

Go to the page on emotion-smell synesthesia

Go to the page on emotion-taste synesthesia

Go to the page on perceived emotion-to-colour and other concurrents including smell and taste

Go to the page on personality-smell and personality-taste synesthesia

Go to the page on lexical-gustatory synesthesia (tasting words)

Go to the page on lexical-olfactory synesthesia (smelling words)

Go to the page on auditory-olfactory synesthesia (smelling sound and music)

Go to the page on auditory-gustatory synesthesia (tasting sound and music)


This page last updated: 16 August 2021


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