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Across diverse lineages, animals communicate using chemosignals, but only humans communicate about chemical signals. Many studies have observed that compared with other sensory modalities, communication about smells is relatively rare and not always reliable. Recent cross-cultural studies, on the other hand, suggest some communities are more olfactorily oriented than previously supposed. Nevertheless, across the globe a general trend emerges where olfactory communication is relatively hard. We suggest here that this is in part because olfactory representations are different in kind: they have a low degree of embodiment, and are not easily expressed as primitives, thereby limiting the mental manipulations that can be performed with them. New exploratory data from Dutch children (9–12 year-olds) and adults support that mental imagery from olfaction is weak in comparison with vision and audition, and critically this is not affected by language development. Specifically, while visual and auditory imagery becomes more vivid with age, olfactory imagery shows no such development. This is consistent with the idea that olfactory representations are different in kind from representations from the other senses. This article is part of the Theo Murphy meeting issue ‘Olfactory communication in humans’.

Original publication




Journal article


Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences


The Royal Society

Publication Date





20190273 - 20190273