What are you good at smelling?

It seems culture and training matter a great deal.  T.M. Luhrmann reports:

Recently, a team of anthropologists and psychologists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University, both in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, set out to discover how language and culture affected sensory awareness. Under the leadership of Asifa Majid and Stephen C. Levinson, they made up a kit of systematic stimuli for the traditional five senses: for sight, color chips and geometric forms; for hearing, pitch, amplitude and rhythm variations; for smell, a set of scratch-and-sniff cards; and so forth. They took these kits to over 20 cultural groups around the world. Their results upend some of our basic assumptions.

For example, it’s fairly common, in scientific literature, to find the view that “humans are astonishingly bad at odor identification and naming,” as a recent review of 30 years of experiments concluded. When ordinary people are presented with the smell of ordinary substances (coffee, peanut butter, chocolate), they correctly identify about half of them. That’s why we think of scent as a trigger for personal memory — leading to the recall of something specific, particular, uniquely our own.

It turns out that the subjects of those 30 years of experiments were mostly English-speaking. Indeed, English speakers find it easy to identify the common color in milk and jasmine flowers (“white”) but not the common scent in, say, bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. When the research team presented what should have been familiar scents to Americans — cinnamon, turpentine, lemon, rose and so forth — they were terrible at naming them. Americans, they wrote, said things like this when presented with the cinnamon scratch-and-sniff card: “I don’t know how to say that, sweet, yeah; I have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes like, what do I want to say? I can’t get the word. Jesus it’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red. Can I say that? O.K. Big Red, Big Red gum.”

When the research team visited the Jahai, rain-forest foragers on the Malay Peninsula, they found that the Jahai were succinct and more accurate with the scratch-and-sniff cards. In fact, they were about as good at naming what they smelled as what they saw. They do, in fact, have an abstract term for the shared odor in bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. Abstract odor terms are common among people on the Malay Peninsula.

I am good at smelling curries.


I went once to wine sniffery in NZ. The case they made for the apparently sillier sort of wine critic was compelling: you really can smell such things as (my own description) "the smell of grass just beginning to rot under your boyhood tent" in wines; and potatoes; and, and, and .......

'I am good at smelling curries.'

Before or after? (Just a Vulture Central BOFH style joke, more can be found at http://www.theregister.co.uk/data_centre/bofh/ )

My understanding is that people have a hard time thinking about an abstract concept until they have a name for it. If that is true, we cannot be surprised that the people of a culture that has common "abstract odor terms" would be better at identifying those odors.

Right, this is the highly plausible modest version of the now much derided Sapir-Whorf hypothesis behind the Newspeak in Orwell's "1984."

Whorf's day job was fire inspector for an insurance company, and the fire safety profession has put a lot of effort into making sure we have simple, uniform words for important concepts such as "EXIT" or "FLAMMABLE."

Or "inflammable" as Strunk and White would remind us. Flammable is used for the safety of children and illiterates.

"Flammable" is used for the benefit of anybody who might get confused about what the ambiguous preposition "in" means in this case, and for the benefit of anybody else who happens to be within the blast radius. It's a successful innovation. I haven't seen any evidence that Whorf, who died young, was involved in this particular one, but it's a good illustration of how he might have got interested interested in the topic of how having the right terms helps us think better.

I recall seeing a clever book at a Barnes and Noble that had names for things that have no names, such as the dried plasticine goop at the top of a catsup bottle.

They're called 'sniglets', and they started out as a comedy bit on Saturday Night Live in the early 80s. But I bet some of them are now in the dictionary.


Sorry, not SNL, on an HBO 'fake' news show.

Oh for God's sake Tyler, you should know better than most that 'curry' is not a thing, it is a method of cooking food. Curry smells different depending on what is in it, and what spices it's cooked with. Please stop promulgating the myth of 'curry'. Indians everywhere thank you.

LOL, yes. I think he means he can differentiate the various styles of curry by smell. I don't doubt that. IMO, curry is a gift from God no matter the style.

Why cinnamon should be a scent familiar to Americans? Percentage of people that cooks and time spent cooking have declined in the last 50 years. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3639863/

if you want to understand what tobacco might smell like if it were unalloyedly good for you try a petunia field late on a thundery summer day

Does that smell the same as the stalks of nice ripe tomatoes or crushed nettles?

the tomato stalk smell seems a little more wholesome and with less of a slightly electric zing, I would say. Crushed nettles - I have only smelt uncrushed nettles, and then only when they were wet. Based on your question you probably know more about this than me, though.

personally I like the smell of teen spirit

Probably file this under "the exact opposite" but I have a condition called phantosmia which means that I experience phantom smells. It started with a smoke smell -- bit not cigarettes or bbq but like a camp fire. Next it was rotting flowers, then Mexican food. Do not ask me how I knew it was Mexican food and not something like Spnish tapas, I just did. It disappearred for awhile but has come back and now I regularly smell either honeysuckle or toast.

Why should "cinnamon" be considered more correct than "Big Red Gum"? It would be one thing to respond with "apple pie" or "rice pudding" - noticing the cinnamon but not the accompanying odors. It's quite another to recognize a particular gum that has one and only one scent.

Im inclined to think that our sense of smell and differentiation is quite good, but our complex senses and thoughts drown out individual stimuli, ie we take in and have a larger total sensory experience than other animals.

I answered the door on Thursday to accept a package. The delivery woman said I smelled like candy. I had not eaten candy, so I was confused. After she left, I realized that the hand soap I had used to wash my hands before going to the door was watermelon scented. It smells just like a Jolly Rancher. I hadnt noticed it until she said something.

When I smell fresh guavas, I always think of Hawaii. I've only been to Hawaii once for a couple weeks when I was ten years old, and I was exposed to many smells there including lots of orchids and carnations. (I picked carnations for my grandfather's commercial flower operation while there.) I also had breadfruit and wild goat jerky and other things I've never had before nor since. I don't specifically remember being exposed to guavas at that time, but I suppose it must have happened.

Why should it be surprising that rain-forest foragers have a better sense of smell than westerners - English-speaking or not?

Smell surely helps them identify what they are after, and not after, but it's not much use in writing computer programs or practicing law.

Yes. It's definitely not what one might consider a properly randomised trial.


A culture that spends nine hours a day pushing paper and four hours a day watching television is too oblivious to identify cinnamon? I can buy that.

No, the correct answer was "lemon."

In contrast, I bet Americans in 2014 on average can identify more colors more acutely than Americans in 1850 before the huge efflorescence of industrial dyes. The number of words for colors that catalog-writers have at their command is immense these days.

Interview I did with author Alyssa Harad, whose book on perfume includes her tales of learning to differentiate scents at a "smelling salon": http://www.deepglamour.net/deep_glamour/2013/07/dg-qa-author-alyssa-harad-on-the-allure-of-perfume.html


The lady you interviewed repeatedly emphasizes the need to have a vocabulary for discussing perfumes. Very Sapir-Whorfy.

"Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University, both in Nijmegen, the Netherlands" "Under the leadership of Asifa Majid and Stephen C. Levinson" Um.

"They took these kits to over 20 cultural groups around the world." Gee, I always knew I got the wrong career.

This reminds me of recent work on musicians and their sense of pitch. The basic question is why people can identify "blue" without seeing it on a chart or seeing it next to "green". Most people cannot do that with sound - e.g., they can't name A when they hear it.

One group that is dramatically better at this is Chinese musicians. They have perfect pitch (can identify notes just by hearing them) 9x more often than American musicians.The research claimed that this was because Chinese was a tonal language and that native speakers used the exact same pitch each time they spoke a given word. This tonal consistency drastically increased their use and recognition of pitched sounds.

If nothing else, this is a nice tribute to the not well understood question of what are the limits of human ability.

I'd be curious to know how the Malays performed at other sensory tasks.

The original evolutionary bargain that human ancestors made was to trade a more refined sense of smell for better color vision. Most people who are deaf or blind compensate with increased brain power devoted to other senses. I wouldn't be surprised if populations with a superior sense of smell do so at the expense of other sensory capabilities - maybe the Malays sacrifice the ability to read fine print and other fine visual images in order to focus on smell, for example.

Asking questions are really good thing if you are not understanding something fully, except this paragraph gives good understanding yet.

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