by A.S.Barwich

Smellosophy - What the Nose Tells the Mind

Boy is this a hard book. In the Middle Ages scholars everywhere in Europe wrote in Latin. This meant they could be understood everywhere, but not by everybody. There is a lingering effect of this in that academic language relies heavily on words of Latin origin. This makes it difficult to read if you are not used to it. It does have a good reason for this of course – everyday language varies across the English speaking world and words have associations that can cloud their use and their meanings are continually changing. So you can see why that is how scientific papers are written. But it is still heavy going to plough through a whole bookful of it.

Here’s how the author describes the book.

“Smellosophy is an unapologetic declaration of love to olfaction. It provides an integrated perspective on the various creative strands of research that explore what the nose knows. These strands encompass developments in neuroscience, molecular biology, genetics, chemistry, psychology, cognitive science, psychology, and philosophy, as well as expertise in perfumery and winemaking. The philosophical tenor of this book goes beyond interdisciplinary synthesis, however. It presents an outlook, not a summary, and points at new avenues by identifying the open issues in current thinking about smell.”


A lot of it is written in that style. But the author also uses some well worn techniques to improve its accessibility. For example, there is the old trick of reporting a difficult concept or idea not in plain prose, but in the form of a reported conversation. I spoke to my friend Charlie about this. “Yes” he told me, the sparkle in his eyes belying the fact that he was already onto his sixth glass of pernod and absinthe. “The trick is to lure the reader into what they think is just a chat between two characters that they have got to know. And you sneek the message into the dialogue. It works particularly well if there is a bit of an argument involved. Everyone’s done it, from Socrates onwards.”

There is nothing wrong with using tricks like this with a difficult subject, but it is best not to overuse them. Unfortunately you have pages and pages of this kind of thing and it gets very tedious if taken to excess. And a big chunk of the content follows a narrative that our existing ideas about smell are wrong and need to be changed. But as most of us don’t have any pre-existing concepts about the nature of perception in general, it isn’t really something that especially bothers us to discover that smell doesn’t fit well with concepts that work for sight and hearing.

But the fact remains that smell is indeed a somewhat mysterious sense, and probing how it works is intrinsically interesting not only because it is rather strange. All but a very small number of us have a fully functional sense of smell and it is something that we use every day. It guides a lot of our decisions and can have a big effect on our mood. And yet it is a peculiar thing that isn’t easy to understand.

There is a report of an experiment in the book that really brings home just how weird our sense of smell is. The famous per­fumer Christophe Laudamiel exposed an audiece to the smell of sulfurol during a lecture. He asked them what they thought about it. Reactions varied. There was a range of replies – a little sweaty, somehow sweet and fatty. It was not unpleasant; but not very pleasant e­ither. What was it? Laudamiel surprised the audience and showed a picture of warm milk. The audience instantly recognised it. He changed the image to ham. They now smelt ham. The perception could be switched back and forth ­simply by switching the image.

This is an interesting anecdote and gives us some idea of the complexity of our brain’s relationship with our nose. Clearly there is lot going on when we sniff something. There is a lot more to it than simply tagging a particular smell to its source. The visual signals that go along with it have a big impact as well. And of course we all make associations with fragrances all the time. Apparently the smell of wintergreen in the United States is associated with sweets (or candies as they call them) while in the United Kingdom it is linked to its use in chest rubs for treating colds.

I’d have liked more stories like this, and a bit less of the theory and much less of the technical jargon. But if you manage to penetrate this there is some thought provoking informationto be gleaned. It will be hard work for non-scientists, and not exactly a picnic for scientists. I won’t discourage you from trying, but it isn’t a page turner and will need a bit of an investment of time. Maybe get a sandwich.

You may also like...