Smell IQ Still in the Research Stage {The 5th Sense in the News}

olfact-kombo.jpgThere is an interesting article about our individual capacities to smell which, as the way the research is conducted, seems to depend primarily on rather solidified given cultural and genetic variables. Certain pathologies like Alzheimer show a link with the sense of smell.

There seems to be a regrettable propensity to interpret the current data as information to be taken into account when designing flavors and scents to target people that will find them pleasant, which appears to me to be on the static side. I wished that the role of education were better emphasized in showing how the senses of taste and smell can be educated, improved, refined etc. According to this article however, it would seem that there might be genetic and cultural limitations to such an optimistic vision about (the possibility is not even considered here) making people be more intelligent and sensitive smellers and tasters....
I am a little skeptical also about studies that emphasize too much in-group traits without taking into account the role of cultural exchange and communication and also studies that essentialize preferences without making more subtle references to psychological variations. It always looks like your basic ethnic-person reference is a lazy, non-thinking person who passively receive all these traits and never process them otherwise. It is also rather broad-brush to amalgamate Asians, African-Americans, and Europeans...But let us remember that the article states that these are tendencies, not all-encompassing facts, which again would demand clarification. On the other hand, there certainly must be active processes of cultivation of smell and taste-values that are meaningful to one's sense of identity.

I was surprised to read that Asians "tend to dislike the scent of clove oil" as it is famously found in the popular Tiger Balm (in China) and Kretek cigarettes (in Indonesia)...It looks like the studies are based on US-based ethnic groups rather than worldwide comparative research.


What's that smell?

The computer screen says it could be banana, wintergreen, watermelon or gasoline.

Sitting in front of the olfactometer, a white metal box sprouting a small plastic tube that emits the odor, you've got just seconds to choose among the four.

From the tip of the tube, the machine is ready to serve up another puff. It could be the scent of leather, mint, cinnamon or lemon. You choose.

After 12 minutes and whiffs of 40 different scents, a computer will print out a profile of just how keen is your sense of smell.

Neuroscientist Lloyd Hastings hopes to sell the first of his new machines this week at the International Symposium on Olfaction and Taste - a gathering in San Francisco of 1,000 leading international scientists who study these two mysterious and vital senses.


Read more in the SF Gate: Research Making Sense of the Nose and Tongue

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3 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. I think 40 smells, at one time, may be too many. I'd be very interested to see if they get different results if the session were to broken into smaller segments. I would suggest no more than five smells at a time. The person could wait 30 minutes in between sessions, in order to rule out things like different hormones, foods in the body, etc.--variables that could be different on different days. Someone should have asked me. ;o)

  2. That's an interesting correlation that people with olfactory troubles are more likely to develop Alzheimers. Many neurodegenerative diseases, including schizophrenia, seem to cause degeneration predominantly in the forebrain, near the olfactory bulb. For years there has been a correlation between schizophrenia and early cat ownership, so the idea that some neurodegenerative diseases are transmitted through the nose is very interesting.

    I agree that it is unfortunate that the article didn't mention the influence of learning on olfaction. Dr. Vosshall is interviewed in the article, and much of her work has to do with the relationship between olfaction and learning. A quick PubMed search turns up the following article, which seems to support your statement that the roles of culture and learning are very important for understanding scent perception.

    Neuron. 2007 Dec 6;56(5):838-50.Click here to read
    Activity-dependent plasticity in an olfactory circuit.

    • Thank you for your comment and the link

      Chant Wagner

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