Thursday, October 21, 2021

Nobody Is an Expert at Everyday Smells, Not Even the Smell Experts

If you find the language of smell interesting, Asifa Majid is the scientist to follow. This is a study from 2016, but it never hurts to be reminded that your ability to perform overt olfactory exploration on your environment is likely way worse than it could be. 

We don't talk about smells, and that's part of the reason why we can't identify them. A forgotten milk box in a student's locker over summer vacation may just as well be a poor rodent who happened to die under your staff refrigerator. These are pretty different smells, but they're both "bad," and that's about as much as we need to know. (They're both protein-based, so those two descriptions are not too far apart.)

Now you might think that a wine expert would be an ideal model for a chemosensing humanoid, but no. Experts are only good at smelling the things they've been trained to smell. They are only good at smelling what they already have words for. Granted, they have lots more words than your average person, but only words for odorants specific to their discipline.
Experts only have a limited, domain-specific advantage when communicating about smells and flavors:
Neither expert group was any more accurate at identifying everyday smells or tastes. Interestingly, both wine and coffee experts tended to use more source-based terms (e.g., vanilla) in descriptions of their own area of expertise whereas novices tended to use more evaluative terms (e.g., nice).
-Not All Flavor Expertise Is Equal: The Language of Wine and Coffee Experts. Ilja Croijmans, Asifa Majid. June 2016,  PLoS ONE 11(6): e0155845.
Putting things in perspective, it should be noted that a master perfumer has a vocabulary of **thousands** of words for smells, which is ten times more than the wine or coffee expert. (You want to know some of the words are in the smell lexicon for coffee experts? Check out the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon and scroll down to "Publications;" and then you can compare that to the 1,000+ descriptors in the Sigma Aldrich catalog of fragrance chemicals which are purchased by perfumers to make perfume.)

If you want to be an "Everyday Smell Expert" all you have to do is start to come up with a vocabulary of your own for the smells around you, and then start paying attention. Soon you'll be able to recognize odors in your environment at really low thresholds, and maybe even be able to accurately  associate them with their source. 

Post Script:
Later in the paper, the idea of cultural difference as inhibiting our olfactory prowess:
"The difficulty people have in naming smells and flavors could be a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) affair. -source

So another approach to becoming a better everyday-smeller would be to try growing up in a non-WEIRD country.

No comments:

Post a Comment