Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Moss Man and Stinkor - Aromatic Thermoplastics

I wonder how many other middle-aged men are selling their childhood toys on ebay right now. (Actually, I wrote this for my other blog, just about one year ago, and all my toys are now gone, and in their place I got enough money to buy a plane ticket to the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles, California.) It certainly has been a trip down Memory Lane, but I find it somewhat embarrassing that I missed these two guys in the process.

Moss Man and Stinkor are action figures from Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe line, circa 1985. They stand out because they came with their own smell - Pine-Sol and Patchouli, respectively. According to the interwebs, Mattel actually poured patchouli oil into Stinkor's mold, to hold that baked-in freshness for eternity (or Eternia, as it were).

This time capsule of the olfactory imagination is no match for Strawberry Shortcake, mind you, who's perfumed hair no longer smells like strawberries. (I'm going to speculate here that Moss Man's scent was also added to the furry moss on his body; not as permanent as Stinkor.)

So one would think that to open a box of thirty year-old He-Men I would be transported by this odormobile to a time long forgotten.

As it turns out, the overall nostalgia from all that visual and tactile stimulation overpowered the triggers of Stinkor's scent. I've already sold all my He-Men, and I don't remember smelling a thing.

But the real question, since when is patchouli a stand-in for skunk?

Or, maybe Mattel had some real jokesters on their team.

John Brownlee, FastCo Design, 2013 June 24

Go to the main He-Man website for more information

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Universal Language of Chemosignals

source: What Do Plants Talk About

Not only can plants “see” light and “hear” vibrations, they are now known to smell parasitic worms. These nematodes communicate with each other using pheromones (specifically ascarosides), which in turn regulate the worm’s development and behavior. We might think of it as wi-fi.

The chemical signal is excreted (or transmitted) from one worm, and received by another. Plants, using that natural tendency of all living things to be clever, hack into the nematode wi-fi network, and use that information to regulate their own behavior and development. When you watch roots grow in timelapse, you realize they're just like worms, wiggling through the ground, looking for nutrients. Only they're not looking, they're smelling.

This should be a reminder to us that the thing we call Smell is a primitive form of communication used by all living things. Plants don't have brains, so they don't smell like we do. But they do have memories, and even autobiographies. We would call this ontological history – these are interactions stored in the ever-changing DNA of the plant. Experience is passed on to subsequent generations.

The first organisms lived in a chemical world. And although they may have been sensitive to light particles and waves of vibration, they were also a receiver of chemical signals. And of the lot, the chemo-signals were the most complex and required the most sophisticated translation. Our brains – real human brains – grew through evolution out of the olfactory bulb. We may associate the advanced cortical functions of our mind with other, higher senses like vision and audition, but that whole thing is undergirded by the primitive nose- brain. “We think because we smell.” (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses, 1990)

Our impossibly complex brains can't really fathom what it means for a plant to smell until we come to understand our own chemically-encrypted selves.

Chemo-signal pattern recognition has come a long way, and it’s a history worth looking into.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Froot Flavored

How Can Froot Loops Be Real If the Flavors Aren’t Real?

It’s true, Froot Loops are all the same flavor.

Back in the early days of the Internet, when people were still learning not to use made-up punctuation on message boards, there was a place where you could go to get information about all those random thoughts you have while lying in bed at night. No, it wasn’t called Google, but a predecessor of infinite internet wisdom – Straight Dope.

Although it was re-discovered in a 2014 Today I Learned thread on Reddit, the furthest back we can go is to the Straight Dope message boards of 1999. Surely, however, people have been getting into fistfights over this for many years prior.

The eye-opening part is that most cereals that come in different colors are probably the same in flavor (Ahem, Fruity Pebbles, yes).

Kellogg’s isn’t trying to be manipulative outright; they don’t even call it fruit (it’s Froot). They’re just playing a game that was started around the time of tri-color vision in primates, and one that we all take part in, and one that we actually choose to play. (If not up until now, then after knowing this, you will be forever complicit in the game. The yellow ones will still get left behind.)

Perception is multimodal, that is to say, we do not “see” or “hear” in isolation. We don’t sense anything as “raw information”; instead we perceive things, and this means that the original sensory stimulus has to be processed in its corresponding cortical areas of the brain. For Smell, the raw stimulus gets laced up into your virtual memory body, via the limbic system, before the cortical areas get a chance at it. Regardless, most sensory experience is a mixture of all the senses.

This makes sense, because it makes things more accurate. The brain likes to check with all available information, and that means all sensory information, before verifying what something is. Vision is usually the best verifier for us, so much that it cognitively overrides other senses like smell and taste. There is a reason why almost everything we eat (in America at least) is artificially-colored. *

Sometimes cognitive override yields false results, and this is especially the case with olfaction. There are tons of studies that support this. But if you ate Froot Loops as a kid, you don’t need science, because chances are you thought the yellow was lemon, the orange orange, and so on.

The flavor of Froot Loops is indeed a mixture of the “flavors” that can be derived from various fruits, just that they’re all mixed together. And what does Kellogg’s call this omni-flavored fruit? “Froot”, of course. Froot Loops are not Fruit flavored, but Froot flavored. **

*In the UK, Froot Loops only comes in three colors (purple, orange, green) because they can’t legally use artificial coloring.

**I only repeat this because I saw it in the reddit thread: The main flavoring is bergamot, which is also the flavor in Earl Gray tea.

And one more, because I thought this was just the best comment of all: You don’t eat froot loops one at a time, so how should you even know?