Monday, October 15, 2018

Motherlode of All Microbiomes


With microbiomes being the new big thing, it’s no surprise that a specimen of chunky sewer grease is now decomposing live for our viewing pleasure.

We have all heard of the fatbergs plaguing London. They’re an agglomeration of fat and baby wipes, congealed into a monster the size of an entire sewer drain (one was bigger than a 747). The first one to be discovered became an instant celebrity, and was subsequently added to the dictionary within a couple years. Presently, a small portion of it enjoys a place in the Museum of London where we can all watch it decompose into perpetuity

This fatberg is only a small fragment of the kind found in London's underground (the other underground).

It’s pretty gross to have a lump of human feces and spit toothpaste placed on a pedestal in public view. Not only is it gross, but it’s a health hazard. The lump was quarantined for months. It grew mold, it hatched flies, and then it was contained in a triple-thick glass case and put on display.

Being gross and dangerous also makes it intriguing. After its debut, it became a sort of icon, the subject of plays and poems. Apparently there’s a fragrance artist on the loose making fatbergs representing different neighborhoods but I can’t find any further mention of this.

Needless to say, we can’t smell the thing. During the process, it was said to transform from its raw, unbridled state of pungent effluence to a milder olfactory incarnation as a damp basement. Anything more is left to our imaginations.

It now sits as part of the permanent collection; livestream from quarantine.

Image source - Getty

Aug 2018, Ars Technica

Here is the lab analysis report for the fatberg. They give a list of fatty acids, metals, and fecal indicators. Most of the sample was made of unsaturated fats from cooking oils. The report also gives you a rudimentary understanding about how fatbergs may accumulate (make sure to brush up on your Saponification lessons first).

Post Script:
Scopophilia or scoptophilia (from Ancient Greek: skopeo, "look to, examine"), is when we get pleasure from looking at something. 

And of course it's evil twin, Scopophobia, the fear of being looked at.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Be a Bad Beer Expert


Today we're talking about beer taints. Yup, beer taints. Sure this has to do with flavor* but right in the middle of my poking-around for info on the "smell of rain," I seduced by this lexicon of bad beer problems that you can buy to help you make better beer, and just to be a better beer drinker in general. (If I can recognize more of the features of the beer I'm drinking, does that make me a better beer drinker?)

Another term synonymous with beer taint is staling compounds, or simply "off-flavors." Regardless, oxidization is the culprit. In fact, oxygen messes up lots of things, like apples, avocados, and even your body. (You know the old joke of how "Scumbag Oxygen" is required for you to live, yet kills you slowly.)

In beer, oxidization can happen for all kinds of reasons, from air trapped in the head space before putting the cap on, to how long it's been in the bottle, to the storage conditions.

The bottom line is, we want beer to taste good, so if you're making it, we want you to know how to recognize the bad stuff. That's where the test kits come in.

It seems like the concept isn't too old, starting maybe circa 1995 by a gentleman named Dr Bill Simpson working at the Brewing Research Foundation in England.

I'm getting all this at the AROXA site. They make flavor standards and sensory software for beverages. And for beer taints.

I'm taking the following lexicon from their beer taint kit. However, I'm adding some descriptions from a few things I found elsewhere; these extras are separated by a semicolon. And I'm doing this because sensory lexicons are great. This one doesn't have any common names (except for Geosmin), but we'll have something to say about that below.

AROXA (etc) Beer Taint Kit:

“Chlorophenol, like antiseptic mouthwash”

“geosmin, like sugar beets or damp soil”

“Earthy, like green pepper"

“Earthy, like potato skins or dug soil”

"Catty, like blackcurrant juice or tom cat urine"; 2,5-dimethylpyrazine - catty, tomato plant

“Earthy, mouldy, like peat or compost”

sodium bicarbonate
“Alkaline, like caustic or detergent”

"Musty, like corked wine with a rubbery overtone”

“Musty, like corked wine or a damp cellar”

"papery" at the threshold concentration, "cucumbery and green-malty" at twice that value, and "fatty and leathery" at three times the threshold value; I'm adding this although it's not on the AROXA list, because it shows how different concentrations affect perception.

"moldy, earthy, tobacco-like;" and this one because it is an oxidized form of humulene.

Dr. Morten Meilgaard’s Beer Flavor Wheel, 1970s

AROXA has all kinds of flavor standards; I'm only copying the ones for bad beer.

FlavorActiv is another name I should mention, being that they declare themselves the global beverage industry standard for sensory needs since 1996, and have something to do with AROXA.

They make reference standards as well, and have a lexicon of 57 flavors.

And finally, I have to add my favorite word found on this topic - Lightstruck! It's another word for "skunked."

 *Let's not forget, however, that most of what we taste is smell. If it's not from the sweet-salty-bitter-etc profile, it's smell we're talking about. But we'll let this slide.

Post Script
Other important entities in the beverage industry:

Camden BRI - providing practical scientific, technical, regulatory and information support (also selling a beer taint recognition kit)

Siebel Institute of Technology - in the North American yeast-brewing business since 1872 providing all kinds of services (also have sensory training kits)

Here's a book about all this:
MJ Saxby, 1996

And you can't talk about beer without mentioning coffee:

(Yet I leave out all the wine stuff for another day!)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

When It Rains It Smells


In English, the smell of rain didn’t have a name until 1964. Some mineralogists from Australia really wanted to figure out where the smell came from, so they did some experiments. In order for them to describe their results, they took the liberty of changing the pretty useless term for the smell of rain, “Argillaceous odor,” to “Petrichor.”

Argillaceous refers to things made of clay, and petrichor in Latin means rock blood. “Argillaceous” is not exactly the smell of rain, but the smell of wet clay (an odor I know very well as a potter). The word refers to the clay (argilla, Latin) and is used in the absence of the other smells that come from soil, like that which comes from grass and other plant matter as well as the microorganisms and fungi that live in fertile soil.

The main organic ingredient we aren’t mentioning here is “Geosmin.” This doesn’t come from rocks, but from a certain bacteria that lives in the soil, and we all know it as the smell of freshly disturbed earth (geosmin: earth+smell, Greek). Coincidentally, geosmin was named at almost the exact same time as petrichor, in 1965.

With Petrichor, the study authors wanted the semantic identity of the smell to be no longer limited to soil, but all the things that make it what it is. (They also used the phrase “osmic latitude” to refer the general smell-space of a smell, which is another valuable term for the olfactosphere.)

Their main purpose was to pinpoint the source of this ephemeral entity, detailing the variables that make it so – porosity of the clay/soil medium, makeup of the minerals, dryness of the medium prior to wetting, and the presence of both living and dead biological components, like geosmin.

In their pursuit they concocted all combinations of minerals, torched them to eradicate any organic matter contamination, and then literally sniffed the results (using only wetware, i.e., their human noses). Ultimately, the only thing I can tell you from their work is that soil with the most silica produced the sought-after results prodigiously.

An Ancient Recipe for the Smell of Silica
Then there’s that little village in India that’s centuries ahead of our Australian scientists – they bottle Petrichor and sell it as perfume. Four months of the hot, dust-blown summer in northern India does a good job of preparing a fragrant medium for extraction.

In the case of Petrichor, the drier the medium the stronger the scent released upon being wetted. This is because the dirt is absorbing the essential oils of the biosphere (terpenes floating in the air) as well as harboring micro-organisms, fungal colonies, and other plant matter in general. The longer it has to absorb, the more it accumulates – a ticking scent-bomb in a place like India where it doesn’t rain for quite a long portion of the year.

And then come the monsoons, releasing a warm, mineral-rich, and momentary fragrance. It’s a scent that has so possessed a population that they go to great lengths to capture it. Before the monsoons arrive in July, they remove a bunch of this sun-baked earth and fire in a kiln to get it super-dry. Then they distill the essence out of it.

The most interesting part is that this is the only attar they brew that does not come from a plant. And it’s true – what the Australian scientists proved was that it’s mostly silica dust.


Osmic Vernacular
The smell of rain speaks in many different tongues. Because the smell of rain depends so much upon what it wets, it’s different everywhere you go. Surely, one archetype of this scent comes from the parts of India where it’s very dry for a very long time, and then all of the sudden the monsoons come. Personally, I’ve never been to India, so if I smelled a bottle of “rain attar” it wouldn’t exactly send me into a nostalgic reverie. City rain, my kind of rain, smells like steaming asphalt. In lush and verdant West Africa, it smells different again.

This has a lot to do with the dynamics of aerosolization, which isn’t too hard to understand – millions and millions of raindrops smash into the earth, the impact sending tiny particles of whatever it hits shooting into the air. If you can picture it, this isn’t much different than an asteroid impact, only smaller. Argillaceous silica dust, bacterial metabolites, and all the other organic matter that covers the ground (including microscopic pulverized asphalt and other building materials) is sent flying so high into the air, that plumes of it can travel miles away, stirring thirsty cattle that can’t wait for the rains to come.

And let’s not forget ozone. Right before that rain falls, if there is an electrical charge in the air disturbing oxygen molecules, we get the smell of ozone (sharp, chlorine, burnt wires?). Oxygen molecules are usually paired together, but when the electrical activity in the air splits them apart, they can reform as three-molecule-oxygens, which are the only ‘version of oxygen’ that we can smell. (In fact I’m not certain that ozone-smell is oxygen; I’ll bet it’s more complicated than that, like how “chlorine” is not chlorine but the things it binds with, so that the more “chlorine” you smell in a pool, the dirtier it actually is).  

A concluding thought – the smell of rain has a lot to do with the smell of dirt and rocks and bacteria, and even with the smell of the air, and yet nothing to do with the smell of water.

Bear, I.J.; Thomas, R.G. Nature of argillaceous odour. Nature. 1964; 201(4923):993-995.

Geosmin, an Earthy-Smelling Substance Isolated from Actinomycetes. NN Gerber, HA Lechevalieh, Institute of Microbiology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Applied Microbiology, Vol 13, No 6, Nov 1965.

Making Perfume From the Rain, The Atlantic, 2015

Lexical Smell Network

New Jersey Turnpike during a rainstorm

Buy Geosmin on Sigma Aldrich!

This is the chemical name for geosmin:

Odor Descriptions of Geosmin from The Good Scents Co.
Fresh, humus, earthy, musty, freshly ploughed soil, the first rain after a dry period, dirty, weedy, wet, turnip, beet, the muddy smell in freshwater fish, the smell of the countryside

Some important bacterial players in this osmic drama:
Streptomyces coelicolor and Streptomyces griseus, of the Actinomycetes type mold

Post Script
Agrillaceous reminds me of Alliacious, another smell-word for things resembling or consisting of onions or garlic. It’s the first word in my lexical smell network, and I had certainly never heard of it until I began the project.

Geosmin can be made into argosmin, which is the same thing but doesn’t smell at all (Greek – argos =inactive…sound a little like argillaceous?)

And finally, because this is just a cool bit of trivia, geosmin has a hardline to the limbic system of the fruit fly – just the smell of it will activate an escape response, making sure they don’t lay their eggs in food spoiled by this potentially bad-news bacteria that creates geosmin.

Ovipositing btw, is the name for laying your eggs (de-positing , that is).

Friday, September 14, 2018

Limbic Resonance

Humans are the biological boot system for AI, and other prescient statements from Elon Musk. (Illustrated by Joe Scordo)

Above we see illustrated the Tripartite Brain, a rudimentary understanding of different modules of brain activity, as told through an evolutionary development paradigm. Our brains evolve first to do movement and navigation – this is the limbic system. Note the word “limb” in there. It controls the limbs but it also contains the senses, which then control the limbs. (Illustrated by Joe Scordo)

On top of that, we have the animal brain, the monkey brain, or the social brain. This is the one that makes us drink alcohol and paint ourselves in the colors of our favorite football team, sort of. And then there’s the cortex. This is the one that lets us talk to each other, make art, and do things that calculators do. What you don’t see here is the exocortex. I will credit Jason Silva with that, but surely someone else was saying it before him.

In a recent interview between futurist-entrepreneur Elon Musk and entertainment personality Joe Rogan, Musk talks crazy talk about brains and computers and most importantly computer-brain interfaces.

I’m writing about it here because he spends a few minutes in this exchange talking about the Limbic System, and that doesn’t happen much in popular news.

The topic comes up as Musk is shedding a bit of light on another venture of his – a system that can connect a computer directly to your brain. Crazy as it may sound, there has already been such sorcery for a while now, from the straight-up plug-in-the-head to the more recent eyeborg who hears his colors instead of seeing them, to the pretty ubiquitous EPOC headset. These are called neural interface systems (NIS) and you’ll surely be hearing more about them in the coming decade.

This image is courtesy of WIRED magazine, circa 2005

The EPOC headset has gone through a few iterations so far. A point I must make here, I bought this circa 2011 with the intent to use in the classroom, so my students could play silly video games with their thoughts, and be inspired by a future of wonder, and I was hit with the reality of racial bias even in the future, because students with afro-curl hair, even close to their heads, could not get a good connection from the electrodes, and so it wouldn’t work for them. Racial bias can show up anywhere and we need to be vigilant against it, just saying.

Musk describes his reasons for wanting a high bandwidth, direct link from computer to brain. As humans, we have the cortex, this highest form of a biological computer that we know of. Sure, we can instead call a computer the highest form of a cortex that we know of; in fact, this is where the term exocortex comes in. Currently, we do not have direct access to this exocortex the same way we do the regular cortex.* And that sounds like a job for Mr. Musk. All we have are fingers, and nowadays our voices, and for some people eye movements or other gestures. These ways are too slow, not enough bandwidth.

Musk, in a roundabout way, blames this on the limbic system. Because we have to use our bodies to interact with computers, we have to go through this ‘archaic’ neural network first. Why can’t we just connect the cortex directly to the exocortex?

In the midst of this, he mentions how the internet today exhibits “limbic resonance,” meaning it has been essentially programmed by our collective limbic system. For example, social media is run partially by algorithms, but partially by us and our reptile brains. And according to Musk, as long as we still have these meatbodies in between us and the computers (read cortex and exocortex), then the internet will be an outward reflection of our inner reptile.

And so there you have it, the limbic system in the news. Appreciate it now because it doesn’t happen often.

*”Regular cortex” is called a retronym, or it will be when we come up with the name for it. There was no such thing as an “acoustic guitar” until the electric guitar came out. Might as well start thinking about it now – what will we call the ‘regular cortex’ once the exocortex becomes ubiquitous?

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Are Terpenes the New Antioxidants

Limbic Signal's Terpene Lexical Network. 

Just kidding about the antioxidants thing. I’m really into the words we use for smells, and words in general. So I’ve definitely noticed the word Terpene come on the scene. It’s the magic word in the cannabis industry right now. Terpenes are ultimately the plant-secreted oils that give the flower its aroma. In other words, they are the smell of pot, both the good and the bad smells.

Terpenes are already an important part of the olfactory world, as they are the primary means of communication among plants, bacteria, and insects. And you can probably call the essential oils of plants something else, but terpenes sounds pretty cool, so that’s it.

For all its popularity, there have been few attempts to quantify directly the olfactory profiles of the cannabis industry. I’m talking about using legit hi-tech smell-sniffing machines; nobody had done this yet. We hear about ‘skunk’ and ‘citrus,’ but we haven’t tested a group of words for its usefulness in describing cannabis in all its olfactory instantiations. (There’s a pretty good reason for this, i.e., Federal law; see below.)*

He Smells an Opportunity
Sensory scientist Avery Gilbert was quick to notice this Lingua Vacuum, and quick to provide the solution. First he created a company that will now be known as the promulgator of the cannabis odor vocab – Headspace Sensory. He then wrote himself a study, got approval for testing, scored some product off the recreational market in Colorado, along with some equipment, a labspace and some volunteers, and here we are with a rigorously tested lexicon – 48 words that can satisfy most descriptions of most of the cannabis on the market today.

There were some great results from his work, especially regarding false associations between odor description and expected potency. I’ll go into that shortly, but first I should describe how he did all this. Because you know, details matter.

The cannabis product itself was chosen to represent a comprehensive sample of what’s out there (Lemon Diesel, OG Kush, Snoop OG, etc.). As for the words to use for describing the aromas of these different products, he did what any serious, academically-based person would do – he went to Leafly, and took a bunch of their olfactory-descriptors (earthy, musty, spicy, fruity, etc.). I also did this when I made my terpene chart, check it out here. The list he generates is deliberately over-inclusive, which means there may be redundancies as well as unlikely terms. This is a move I totally support, as olfactory identity has a lot to do with the margins and the seemingly extraneous.

The next step was to mechanically “sniff” the products, producing an analysis of the physical chemicals evaporating from them (Limonene, Myrcene, etc.). And finally, he asked real humans to sniff those same products, and choose from the list of potential descriptors enough words to satisfy a worthy olfactory articulation.

On To the Results
The overall purpose here was to survey the limits of an olfactory lexicon for cannabis. How many words do we really need to accurately describe all the cannabis that’s on the market? Avery concludes with 48 words, clustered into two major groups of 1) citrus, lemon, sweet, and pungent and 2) earthy, herbal, and woody in the other. For reference, similar lexicons for coffee and wine cover about 85 words.

Here’s the total list; I also typed it out below:
Headspace’s Terpene Lexicon

Time for the interesting part. Exactly as you would expect (had you read my book that is), smells have confused us. In Gilbert’s study, pot samples in the Citrus group (citrus, lemon, sweet, and pungent) were expected to be more potent than those in the Earthy group (earthy, herbal, and woody). Coincidentally, my terpene chart seen above does the same thing, clustering the same descriptors in the middle because they are the most common among all the terpenes. For whatever reason, people associate that citrusy-sweet-sour aroma with THC. For the record, THC does not smell. I am curious as to what others think about the reason for this, although I am sure it’s complicated (and has nothing to do with the fact that the citrusy-pungent profile made its appearance on the scene in tandem with higher potencies?). Anyone who’s been reading High Times since the early 90’s, feel free to weigh in!

Deeper into the olfactory funky skunk lexicon, Gilbert found that “bad” smells were associated with “good” stuff, and vice versa. In other words, the skunky, pungent, sour diesel, etc. flavors shouted DANK! while others whispered weakly, “you just got beat,” which also translates as “backyard boogie.”

This is great and I could talk about it forever, as it takes us to one of the most important things to know about our sense of smell – it is totally hedonically neutral, and totally malleable. Parmesan cheese is supposed to be gross to us, because it is rotting animal proteins. Kimchi is rotting cabbage. But some humans have been trained by their culture to like Parmesan cheese and kimchi AND the bad-smelling parts of the cannabis plant. That’s how smells work. There are no good or bad smells, only a code written by our culture over time.

Transgressing Cultural Limits
There’s something special about liking something you’re not supposed to. It becomes part of your identity. Most Americans like Parmesan cheese as a result of the Italian-American axis of culinary identity that is the pasta dinner, so it’s not the best example to use here. But kimchi has seen a sharp rise in popularity since it was “discovered” a handful of years ago on a taco truck somewhere on the West Coast of the United States. And now, people who like the smell of it have some kind of cultural advantage over others. Twenty years ago, it would have been a reason to spit ethnic vulgarities (and they smell so bad like rotten cabbage!), but today it does the same thing, only in the other direction (what a loser, I guess he can’t handle the smell of rotten cabbage in his tacos!).

If this is a topic you’re interested in, check out the essay “Quantum Hedonics” in my book which you can find on Google books for free.

If you recall, there was a time in your life that alcohol tasted like poison (alcohol is also fermented btw). Even sex has smells that at one time were pretty offensive to your younger self. But as we mature, the “acquired” taste for these things becomes a badge we wear as proof of our journey into adulthood and independence. The smell of cannabis is no different. To come to appreciate these “negative” properties of a thing is a cultural transgression that works in perfect concert with the illegal/taboo nature of consuming drugs, as well as the liberating effects of consciousness-expanding substances.

Perhaps it is the last two parts of the package that drive such a strong preference for the “bad” smells of pot products. Gilbert, in his report, makes it a point to mention that coffee and wine do not present skunky smells in a positive light – they are instead seen as a defect in these products. Beer however, which does not have its own aroma wheel like wine or coffee, suffers from being skunked just the same. And yet, as IPA’s have dominated the craft market, it should make you wonder whether the skunky-hops flavor of those beers are another example of consumer desires to transgress olfactive-cultural boundaries.

Concluding Thoughts
Thanks to Gilbert we now have a proper list of words to describe these products. It allows us all to be on the same page, and it furthers the growth in this budding industry by educating producers and consumers alike, and by providing a consistent basis for comparison among different products. More importantly, as far as I’m concerned, it gives us a baseline of data (a bunch of words) that we can use to make further discoveries about our own quirks, misunderstandings and cognitive-perceptual fallibilities.  

*The primary reason for this lack of research is that cannabis is still deemed illegal by the same entity that grants the right to conduct experiments on humans. In other words, in order to do any experiment that involves humans, one must secure approval, basically proving that their experiment won’t hurt the people involved. But that entity could never allow an experiment where illegal products are used. This is the state law/federal law puzzle that keeps things interesting here in the US.


Avery Gilbert’s Source Article:
Gilbert AN, DiVerdi JA (2018) Consumer perceptions of strain differences in Cannabis aroma. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0192247.

Avery Gilbert ‘s Blog:

Terpene Network Graph:
I made this terpene graph where I took all the top terps from Leafly, and their corresponding descriptors from the Sigma Aldrich catalog, and made an interactive chart out of it (interestingly, my list has 49 words).

More Terpene Experts:
Oren Cohen is an olfaction artist and the founder and CEO of Terpene Experts. He is an olfaction artist and educator who specializes in terpene profile development, as well as providing professional flavor and fragrance creator for a decade, with deep experience in cannabis, e-liquid, and the restaurant industry.

Here’s What They Do:
We are terpene profile artists who can replicate the exact nuances of any strain in world. Our expert noses can smell a bud and detect the nuanced notes of its terpene profile with accuracy that comes from years of work as flavorists and fragrance creators. This is an art and skill that no lab report can replace. AND they create new terpene spectrumsss.

And Why They Do It:
“When people use cartridges or pens, the entire experience and expectation is different than that of flower. They want to enjoy the flavor. They want the key profiles of their favorite strains to present themselves in a layered and cohesive fashion. It’s our job as expert terpene flavorists to deliver an experience that’s both familiar and compellingly unique to the delivery system.”

Learn More About Terpenes:
An Introduction to Terpenes: A four-week course with Oren Cohen to explore the origins, profiles and uses of terpenes at the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles.

Leafly terpene article:

From Avery Gilbert’s Study: The 48 odor descriptors used to characterize cannabis samples:
blue cheese
tree fruit
tropical fruit

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Renaissance of Smell

Immerse yourself in a pot of hot enfleurage so we can bottle your essence forever, just like this murder victim from the movie Perfume.

Trends come and go, we know that. The rate of change, however, is a topic worthy of discussion. People used to say that fashion revolves on a twenty year cycle – wait til the 90’s and bellbottoms are cool again. You know what hasn’t been in fashion for a while though? Smell.

I’m looking at a great piece by Smell Futurist Olivia Jezler about the coming wave of olfactory experience headed our way. It was written a year ago, but since we’re going to examine very long timescales here, her piece is still relevant. This is a slow wave.

Looking Back – The Loss of a Sense
Unlike bellbottoms and banjos, smell is not a cultural artifact; it is a medium for transmission. And as such, it’s been around forever. Longer even than the comb-over! And it used to be so important to us. It told us what was ok to eat, who was ok to mate with, and when to take out the garbage. And then, one day, tricolor vision and bipedal height advantage come along, and BAM – no more smells.

Seeing in color makes eyes the most high-fidelity info channel ever, and the height advantage from walking on two legs both expands that field of polychromatic vision and takes our noses off the ground, making them way less useful. Vision wins, and olfaction bites the dust. We spend the next half a million years looking at flowers and listening to crinkly sounds but not a single smell. Sure there’s food and taste, but we have very completely convinced ourselves that most of what we taste is taste and not smell, although it is in fact the other way around.

(Also dogs – I don’t hear many people saying this, but I think human coevolution with dogs, who can smell really well, made us not have to smell as well. Animal cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz might be able to weigh-in on this.)

There was a brief moment around the late 1700’s when smells took the spotlight again, causing the French Revolution and subsequently pouring the foundation for our modern public hygiene infrastructure, not a big deal. And that’s it. No more smells, anywhere.

Looking Forward – The Experience Economy
And then, all of the sudden, we enter the new millennium and it becomes apparent that smell has returned. One day we wake up and flowers smell floral, and perfume bottles no longer spray odorless distilled water (but fatal nerve agents, not funny). Things will get way crazier, according to Jezler’s insights.

“The Renaissance of Smell“
-Bernardo Fleming, Head of the Olfactive Design Studio at International Flavors & Fragrances

Jezler points out what has happened to cause this disturbance in our datasphere – people are now willing to pay more for experiences than for things. I call this dematerialization, but she goes on to describe the cycle of consumerism upon us. She describes how brands today put lots of money behind the creation of experiences that cannot be ‘consumed’ unless you’re there for real.

I think she would have to explain to me why it is that brands want their consumers to go somewhere and do something together. Something about memetic transmission and social networks I guess. Or how about exclusivity? I’ll bet that’s it. You’re just jealous because you’re only hearing about this now, after it’s already been transmitted by someone cooler than you, and that makes you want it more.

An experience economy needs to use all the senses, and this has put more attention on the low hanging fruit, the most unexplored on the market – smell.

And although you can partially consume last night’s pop-up event via this morning’s newsfeed, you can never get the whole thing, because you will never smell it if you’re not there. And that’s because the event last night was augmented by a group of olfactory magicians on the team. From the smell on the seatbelts in the cab on the way over, to the scent on the ticket they gave you at the door, that event was designed as a fully immersive olfactory experience, whether you realized it or not.

Talk about Joel Beckerman and sonic branding – it’s more powerful than Pavlov. (Just kidding it’s the same.) You hear a jingle over and over until it brands a band of your auditory cortex. You’ve been primed.

Scent branding works too, although we pay attention to it less. Whether we notice or not, the brands notice; take a look at Play-Doh exercising their intellectual property rights to be a specifically-scented product. But I am digressing from the point. The Renaissance of Smell rides not just the wave of the experience economy, but also of the palette-forward generation behind the wheel.

“…Smell has been put back on the map through a myriad of factors, and three reasons I believe in particular: Our desire for experience, academic progress, and the rise of the gourmet palette.”
-Olivia Jezler, Owner of The Future of Smell, Fragrance Innovation Consultant

Consumers of today know way more about their biscuits than their grandparents did. Just look at what’s written above a café counter today vs thirty years ago. (It used to just say “Coffee.”)

Just Coffee

This sophistication extends far beyond coffee, and it gives consumers the talent, the exposure and the lexicon to appreciate the gustatory satisfaction of complex aroma.

Looking For Reinforcements – Academia Adds Potency
I saved the “academics” part of Jezler’s premonition for last. The experience economy, of which the gourmet movement is a part, is not the only thing fanning a more fragrant datasphere towards our sensory apparatus. Jezler uses the Academics tag to group together all the new technologies and concepts that have augmented and extended our understanding of this most primitive of senses, from digital noses to hormonal engineering.

Unfortunately, I’m a real pessimist about anything even slightly resembling an electronic nose, or the digital transmission of odorous molecules. However, when I hear somebody (the MIT Media Lab) say that estrogen is a “biotechnical civil disobedience, seeking to subvert dominant biopolitical agents of hormonal management, knowledge production, and anthropogenic toxicity,” I can’t help but get pretty excited. (They’re connecting the profusion of environmental estrogen due to excess petrochemical use, or ‘xenoestrogen,’  to an increasing hormonal malleability, or ‘queering’ of our society, in case you’re wondering.) 

There are plenty of legitimate attempts at bringing our noses to the technocratic party, but I don’t see these going beyond fiction for quite some time. In fact, I should say that it is the main reason why it is such an intriguing subject for a fictional future.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s fact or fiction (especially in today’s world where Big Data has made the truth way harder to faithfully articulate). After all, science fiction gives us the imagination that we need to create the future.

Despite the threat of our world becoming a cold, body-less, virtual space that is a network of quantum repeaters in low earth orbit, Jezler sees us re-engaging with all of our senses. Chances are it will be a bit of both. In the meantime, it makes good business sense to consider the low-hanging fruit of the experience economy. Whether you’re designing the next delivery bot, or writing a proposal for research funding, don’t forget that people care about their sense of smell. It’s what makes an experience authentic, and authenticity will always be in style. 

Image source: A still from the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Image source: Old coffeshop menu

SMELL: How our insatiable desire for experience is giving rise to sensory perception and the renaissance of smell
Olivia Jezler - Medium, 2017

The Future of Smell

Odors and Urban Planning
Limbic Signal, 2017

Kate Maclean’s Sensory Maps

Hasbro trademarks Play-doh’s scent: Sweet, slightly musky
AP News, May 2018

Imagineering Institute’s Digital Smell Interface

MIT Media Lab’s Design Fiction Group on Open Source Estrogen and Hormone Microperformance

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Relative Metrics

It is occurring to me now that Asifa Majid must be a patron saint of Limbic Signal. Besides being the most often cited scientist on this site, she is also, as far as I know, the only academic researching the language of smell.

I’m not sure where she spends more of her time – with the people who live in the Bay of Bengal, or at her university in the Netherlands – but as a result of her work we get to learn more about the rich odor vocabulary of those people, and about the way all of our minds translate sensory experience into language.

In this new work, she compares odor-words used by both the hunting-gathering Jahai people and post-industrialist Dutch people. And it turns out that the Jahai actually had words for smell-types whereas the Dutch referred to smells only by their source. So for example, what I am calling smell-types, are Jahai words referring to “stinging smells,” vs Dutch words referring to “a garbage truck.”

As a whole, she also found that both groups responded in similar ways. Whereas the Jahai had more agreement on the descriptors and with a faster response time, the Dutch gave a wider variety of answers for the same things and struggled to come up with answers at all.

The one thing they did have in common – and this is a nod to the role of the limbic system – their emotional responses to the tested odors were all the same. They know this because they all made the same negative facial expressions in response to similar smells.

Smell as a Window to the Human Condition
The use of facial expressions as a way to measure smells has a long history. Before babies can talk, they can sure make faces, and so scientists can use those expressions to measure pleasure vs disgust. Or at least disgust. (I don’t think the markers for pleasure are as clear and identical across populations, or at least as a measurement for olfactory hedonics – the pleasure or disgust that smells can cause.)*

But that is a momentary digression – we must now get into the depths of this conversation about olfaction, perception, culture, and human-ness. The press release from Radboud University Nijmegen articulates the crux very succinctly: “This suggests that although culture shapes language, odors are perceived in the same way across the globe in diverse cultures.”

First off, this last bit about universal perceptual responses implies that we have a preference hardwired into us, making some smells good and some bad, determined on the day our code was written. But we learn what is good and what is bad, in regards to smell. It is enculturated into us from before we were born.

If there is a common thread running through all humans that makes us like some smells and dislike others, it is because we are constrained first biologically, then culturally. Culture or not, we will learn that human waste is bad, and that it smells bad, even though we may not know it at first. It is simply a matter of probability and statistics – chances are we will all come to find human waste disgusting, and those are not the same chances as whether someone will find aged cheese disgusting or not. We have to learn to like aged cheese, and kimchi, and just about all fermented things.

On Lanugage, Words, and Cognition
Hedonics is easier to talk about; it’s pretty black and white. The semantics of olfaction, however, that’s the hard part. The core of Majid’s work deals with the language of smell, and by extension the Whorf hypothesis, and figuring out what is universal to the human experience and what part is driven into us by our culture. She compares the opposites, the hunter-gatherers and the post-industrialists, using a very clever metric – measuring the way they use language to describe olfactory experiences. She wants to find out what is left when their respective cultures cancel each other out. (Actually, I’m not sure what she wants from her work, but that’s what I want!)

Majid’s metric is clever to be sure, but it’s a slippery one, and for me it brings with it enough trips and falls to write a book, which I have. And it goes something like this:
"There is no language for smells, because it bypasses the language centers of the brain.”
-Hidden Scents
By some accounts, I am wrong. But this is about the grey areas, not the black and whites or rights and wrongs. I’ll continue with a longer passage from a concluding section in my book where we look at a situation similar but different:
In the Bay of Bengal live the Ongee people. A “nose-wise” society, they treat olfaction with as much importance as Western vision. When the West once asked the Ongee for help in making a map of their land, the Ongee man responded: “All the places in space are constantly changing. The creek is never the same; …. Your map tells lies. Places change. Does your map say that?” (Pandya 1991). Smell is like this. Whether through the meanderings of history, or the chimerical configurations of post-modernity, smell is always changing. The Ongee are right; there are no maps, no categories, and no lexicon to show that.
Pandya V (1990). Movement and Space: Andamanese Cartography. American Ethnologist 17:775–797.
The people in question do not use language in the same way as the scientists studying their ways, and so the very word “language” must be clearly defined. Here’s a reminder: in conducting linguistic studies upon many indigenous people, the first thing the intrepid scientist must do is to explain what a word is. That's right, the very concept of the sentence as made of simpler word-parts is unfamiliar if not unknown to certain cultures, and must be painstakingly explained before any “studying” can take place.

Cultural Influence
Getting to the depth of this subject on the human condition, I’ll restate an extensive passage from this site, written a few years ago:

I insinuate not even a whisper of Whorf hypothesis in this: A common Westerner of the 21st century spends a great deal of time in the virtual mindspace, very much removed from the physical environment, very much interacting not with molecules but with thoughts. There is an interstitial space which exists between the person and the world, and this is the collective mindspace of culture.

The post-industrialized human does not perform in a cycle of environmental stimulus and bodily response, but separates the two in time, opening a place for reflection and deliberation. Subjectively-conscious, self-reflective thought interrupts our direct connection with the world around us. Furthermore, systems functioning only via chemical stimuli are de-prioritized for others better suited to simulation and virtual manipulation.

The rich olfactory vocabulary of Majid’s study groups, is it not an indication of the direct reliance upon their physical environment? Instead of it proving that there can be such a thing as a ‘language of smell,’ does it not further support that the two – olfaction and language – are mutually exclusive? I believe this is a case of apples and oranges, but because the subject matter straddles disciplines (psychology, linguistics, sensory studies) it evades such critical analysis.

Concluding Thought
It’s very hard to grasp the extent to which you have learned from your culture; the totality of your programming can never be understood by you because that would break the information law that says a system can never contain a model to fully describe the system that created it.

*A Note on Negative Hedonics
Negative olfactory hedonics is the most physiologically “visible,” showing increased heart rate and activation of the amygdala in response to unpleasant odors. In contrast, neutral and pleasant odors exhibit dormancy (Alaoui-Ismaïli et al., 1997; Zald & Pardo, 1997, resp.). It is also the most nominally visible – bad smells occupy more of the odor namespace than any other distinction, making the hedonic taxonomy quite phobiaphilic (Boisson, 1997). Finally, some odor specialists postulate that such negatively valenced stimuli are processed in two neurologically distinct ways: a “quick and dirty” route for potentially harmful substances and a more “cognitively complex” route for pleasant/neutral odors (Rouby & Bensafi, 2002: 154-55). –taken from Hidden Scents

Alaoui-Ismaïli O, Vernet-Maury E, Dittmar A, Delhomme G, & Chanel J (1997). Odor Hedonics: Connection with Emotional Responses Estimated by Autonomic Parameters. Chemical Senses 22: 237-48.
Boisson C (1997). La Dénomination des Odeurs: Variations et Régularités Linguistiques. In: Olfaction: Du Linguistique au Neurone, ed. D Dubois & A Holley. Intelligentica 1(24): 29-49.
Rouby C & Bensafi M (2002). Is There a Hedonic Dimension to Odors? In: Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition, ed. C Rouby, B Schaal, D Dubois, R Gervais, & A Holley, pp. 140-159. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.

Image source: Stenographer, Mike Gifford, 2014

Radboud University, 2018

Asifa Majid et al. Olfactory language and abstraction across cultures, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0139

Links to more of Majid’s work:
Current Biology, Majid and Kruspe: "Hunter-Gatherer Olfaction Is Special"

Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language. Asifa Majid and Niclas Burenhult. Cognition, November 2013.

Asifa Majid interviewed by cognitive scientist Jon Sutton: The Content of Minds in The Psychologist, July 2016.

Links to Posts related to Majid’s work, language, and cognition: