The ability to vividly imagine the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies — among other odors — may be a risk factor for weight gain, according to a new study out of the Yale School of Medicine.
Previous research has linked mental imagery to cravings, and cravings to body size, but the connection between imagery and body size had remained unexplored until now. The researchers discovered that people with a heightened ability to imagine odors tended to have higher body mass indices. The finding, which appears in the April 9 edition of the journal Appetite, has implications for identifying individuals at risk for weight gain, as well as for creating obesity therapies, said Dana Small, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.
“If you can identify people easily who are better imagers, then you can identify people who are at risk,” Small said. “This is a simple, non-invasive way of figuring it out.”
Over the course of previous research, Small noticed that individuals with higher BMIs were often quite adept at imagining odors, she said, and she wondered if there could be a link between the two. Heightened ability to imagine odors could intensify the craving experience, which in turn would encourage food consumption, Small said.
The work aligns with a trend in the field to define the genetic and environmental factors that put some individuals at increased risk for weight gain, Small added.
In the study, subjects filled out a series of questionnaires that asked them to rate the vividness of imagined visual and odor experiences. The researchers found that individuals with a higher BMI reported experiencing more vivid odors of imagined food and non-food items.
The results are straightforward, but an important piece in understanding the causes of obesity, said Barkha Patel, study lead author and postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.
Jackie Andrade, a professor of psychology at Plymouth University in England, who was not involved in the study, praised the work for demonstrating the link between body weight and the natural ability to imagine food.
“I think it helps to give us a picture of what makes some people particularly prone to cravings,” Andrade said. “Of course, if you have a lot of cravings, it will be uncomfortable to resist food.”
The finding suggests that by altering or interfering with the imagery process, therapy could prevent strong imagery from driving craving, and ultimately, weight gain, Andrade said. Her previous work has shown that disrupting visual imagery by playing Tetris can reduce craving intensity, and a similar logic could guide disruption of odor imagery.
Small said the finding may represent a simple, non-invasive method to identify those at heightened risk of weight gain. Initiating a course of antipsychotic medication, for instance, can put individuals at risk of dramatic weight gain, but separating these individuals by odor imagery could allow practitioners to tailor treatment.
Marcia Pelchat, an associate member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit independent scientific institute in Philadelphia, and who was not involved in the study, said she hopes the finding encourages additional research into the cognitive science of obesity.
“I think we’ve gone through the alphabet soup approach — 10 million neurotransmitters and neuromodulators — but we still haven’t come up with a solution to the problem,” Pelchat said. “These cognitive approaches have proven to be quite effective.”
Small said that follow-up studies should adopt a behavioral assessment, instead of just administering a questionnaire, to rule out the possibility that the self-report measures in the study were the result of a subject reporting bias. While it is impossible to conclude from the correlational finding that mental imagery is causally related to weight gain, future studies that tracked individuals over time would allow researchers to figure out if the ability to imagine smells truly predicts future weight gain, Small said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three American adults are obese.