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Recent research shows that speakers of most languages find smells difficult to abstract and name. Can verbal labels enhance the human capacity to learn smell categories? Few studies have examined how verbal labeling might affect non-visual cognitive processes, and thus far very little is known about word-assisted odor category learning. To address these gaps, we tested whether different types of training change learning gains in odor categorization. After four intensive days of training to categorize odors that were co-presented with arbitrary verbal labels, people who learned odor categories with odor-label pairs that were more consistent were significantly more accurate than people with the same perceptual experience but who had odor-label pairs that were less consistent. Both groups' accuracy scores improved, but the learning curves differed. The context of consistent linguistic cuing supported an increase in correct responses from the third day of training. However, inconsistent linguistic cuing delayed the start of approximating to target odor categorization until after the fourth day. These results show that associations formed between odors and novel verbal labels facilitate the formation of odor categories. We interpret this as showing a causal link between language and olfactory perceptual processing in supporting categorization.

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Linguistic relativity, Odor categorization, Olfactory cognition, Perceptual learning, Humans, Language, Learning, Odorants, Smell, Verbal Learning