I can close my eyes and imagine a red cube with a yellow star on it. Although I don't literally see it -- if there was a red cube with a yellow star on the inside of my eyelids, I'd know the difference -- I can experience it in much the same way as if I was seeing it.

I can do much the same thing with sound, imagining (say) the sound of a bird, or of a bell ringing.

But I can't imagine any tastes, or smells. I know what cinnamon smells like: if several spices were placed in front of me, I could readily identify the cinnamon. But I can't call a familiar smell or a taste to mind in the same way I can call a familiar sight or sound to mind.

I don't think it's merely a memory thing. Even if I've never seen the box, I can still imagine it. I can imagine the sound of a bird tweeting in a large echoing hall, even though I've never heard it. But I can't synthesize unknown smells or tastes in my imagination in the same way I could unknown sights or sounds. I don't think I'm unusual in this respect (correct me if I'm wrong).

Are there any theories as to why this is?

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    $\begingroup$ I think you may be unusual. Or perhaps I am: I can recall smells & tastes with no difficulty. Imagining new ones is more difficult, but I think any creative cook can do it to some extent, when figuring out what foods & spices to use in a dish. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 14, 2016 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf exactly. smells, tastes, touches, temperature etc could be recalled and imagined. But for me they are quite less-easier to deal in mind than vision (shape, colour, motion) and sounds. Maybe it is due to we (modern human) are evolved to 'think' mainly visually and auditorily (such as verbally) than we use the other senses. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Dec 14, 2016 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ Interestingly, when I read the word "cinnamon" in your question, I automatically imagined smelling cinnamon. I would not consider myself a great smeller or taster - I can rarely guess the flavor of something without knowing ahead of time, but I still had this experience. It may be that smells are more difficult to imagine for humans, and that you are an extreme example, but it seems like it isn't truly an inability. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 14, 2016 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Always Confused: It doesn't seem much different to me, but of course that's just an unscientific anecdotal opinion :-) Could be it's just a function of practice, and many people get more practice with vision & hearing than with taste & smell. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 15, 2016 at 3:55
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf yes that was a speculation and not an answer. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Dec 15, 2016 at 7:41

1 Answer 1


Couple of contributing theories:

  • The olfactory system does not project to the thalamus, which serves as a relay to other higher processing areas.

  • Lack of a specialized working memory subsystem; we have fairly robust subsystems for movement,visual and auditory buffers of information, what is normally called working memory, things we can hold on for a little while, but it seems they are not as developed or engage the same areas for smell. see for instance:Working Memory in Another Dimension

  • It is not as useful,used or adaptive ( beyond recognizing odors) as the other senses, there is a relationship in between how much we use something ( could also be the above working memory systems )and the cortical real state devoted to it's processing, this is a competitive part of the brain and in comparison to other senses like vision the portion of the cortex devoted to olfaction is small.

  • Another way of looking at it, is that we do have the capability to imagine smells and gustation, but they are not as developed as the others since we don't use them as much.

  • Anectodally, I would argue that people whose jobs revolve around combining nice smells or tasty things do develop certain abilities like those in vision as well as for those who have been exposed to the same odor repeteadly and can imagine it at will.

  • $\begingroup$ Some interesting theories, but I am wondering if you can cite any academic work to back any of these suggestions up with supportive evidence? Specifically, for whether the phenomenon the OP reports is actually a real thing beyond OP's own experience, or the lack of working memory for smells? $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 14, 2016 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ From the citation you just added: "the results showed that prefrontal regions identified during a visual working memory task were also engaged during olfactory working memory" - This does not support your statement at all that working memory is "not as developed for smell" (edit: I see you have edited again. I still don't think what you are saying is at all supported, I see no evidence that working memory is any less specialized for any of the modalities you mention...I think it is simply true that olfactory working memory is not well studied in humans) $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 14, 2016 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ Also, thalamus is a relay to all areas of cortex, not just higher processing areas, and there are olfactory connections with the thalamus(for example), it is just that the olfactory bulb itself does not project through thalamus to cortex like other sensory modalities, and I am not certain the role of the thalamus in working memory is well understood $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 14, 2016 at 21:21

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