: imagine what something smells like

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How can you imagine what something smells like? Like you can smell it… but you obviously can’t. How does your mind put that together?

In: Biology

Prior experience, analogy, and a dash of *we don’t really know how consciousness works*.

If you have smelled something before — and especially if you have smelled it often or particularly strongly — it is more likely that the association between that sensory experience and the verbal prompt “imagine the smell of X” will help trigger the right set of firing neurons in the brain to replicate that experience.

If you have never smelled something before, some analogy might act similarly. “Like carrot mixed with aubergine and chive” can, in the same way, prompt what prior experience you *do* have, and you might have some imperfect idea of whatever *X* is that smells like *carrot mixed with aubergine and chive*.

Ultimately, though, we do not really understand how conscious experience occurs. We have good ideas about consciousness depending in some way upon neurons doing neuron things in the brain — and hell, we even know that prodding certain parts of the brain with electricity can dramatically alter or even stop conscious experience — but ultimately the exact process by which neurons signaling each other is currently out of our reach. There are even *hard* philosophical problems with how that could even happen at all.

So, generally, you either had the experience and remember it or you have adequate analogs of the experience and you take your best immediate guess. But in the end, we aren’t quite sure how experiencing anything is… well, experiencing, as we know it ourselves.

When you sleep, your memories of the day are stored away, like little boxes on a shelf. If you imagine your senses as 5 people, they each put things in the boxes when they’re being put away.

Sight, smell, touch, taste, and feel.

Your imagination would be those people pulling down boxes and playing with the things they placed inside.

If you imagine an yellow flower, but have never seen a yellow flower before, your sight person will pull down a box he placed a flower inside of, then maybe a box he placed a banana inside of, then put them together.

While your sight person is playing with the flower and banana. The other 4 want to pull out their stuff from those boxes too, so the smell person pulls out the smell of when you saw the banana and flower and plays with it.

When you look at a picture, the sight person searches for a box that already has that thing inside it so he doesn’t have to use another box for the same toy. They are very particular about that.

When sight person finds one and opens it up, your smell person can grab his stuff out at the same time, and it becomes really easy to smell the picture you’re looking at.