Jun 23, 2021
You’ve no doubt heard that—as humans—our sense of smell is, well, kind of pathetic. The idea goes all the way back to Aristotle, that we have advanced senses—especially sight and hearing—and then lowly, underdeveloped ones—taste and smell. It’s an idea that has been repeated and elaborated over and over, throughout Western intellectual history. Along with it comes a related notion: that smells are nearly impossible to talk about, that odors simply can’t be captured in words. These ideas may be old, but are they actually true?
A number of researchers would say they're ripe for reconsideration. And my guest is one such researcher, Asifa Majid. She’s Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of York in the UK. For a decade now, Asifa’s been pioneering a new wave of research on human olfaction, especially how it interfaces with language, thought, and culture.
In this conversation we talk about the general notion that some kinds of experience are harder to put into words than others. We discuss Asifa’s fieldwork with hunter-gatherer groups in the Malay peninsula, as well as her studies with wine experts in the west. We talk about whether learning special smell terms seems to sharpen one’s ability to discriminate odors. And we venture beyond Asifa’s own work, to touch on a bunch of recent highlights from the broader science of olfaction.
This was such a fun conversation, folks! I’ve admired Asifa’s work on this topic since her very first paper. She’s a truly interdisciplinary thinker and, as you’ll hear, she’s got a nose for fun examples and deep questions.
Without further ado, on to my conversation with Dr. Asifa Majid! Enjoy.
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Notes and links
3:40 – A paper on the 19th century rise of the myth that humans are poor smellers.
6:00 – A paper estimating that humans can discriminate possibly a trillion different odors.
7:30 – A theoretical paper by Dr. Majid and a collaborator on “differential ineffability” and the senses.
9:20 – Dr. Majid’s collaborator in her work on Jahai, a Malaysian language, was Niclas Burenhult.
11:00 – A classic book on the idea of “basic terms” in the domain of color, which provide an analogy for basic terms in the domain of smell.
12:30 – A first paper by Dr. Majid and Niclas Burenhult describing the language of olfaction in Jahai.
14:45 – Dr. Majid’s first experiment comparing odor naming (and color naming) in Jahai and English.
25:40 – A follow-up study by Dr. Majid and a collaborator on two groups within Malaysia who contrast in subsistence mode.
29:30 – A paper detailing cultural practices surrounding smell among the Jahai.
31:00 – Dr. Majid discusses the factors shaping cultural variation in olfaction (as well as a number of other interesting issues) in her most recent review paper.
39:00 – The “deodorization” hypothesis was discussed in a classic book on the cultural history of aroma.
39:40 – In a recent study, Dr. Majid and collaborators failed to find evidence that the frequency of smell language has fallen off since industrialization.
45:50 – Dr. Majid led a study comparing 20 languages across the world in terms of how expressible their speakers found different sensory experiences.
53:00 – Some possible reasons for the general trend toward the ineffability of smell are considered in Dr. Majid’s recent review paper.
57:00 – Along with her collaborators, Dr. Majid has examined the smell-naming abilities of wine experts. See one paper here.
1:02:45 – A recent paper by Dr. Majid and colleagues showing that wine experts’ smell-naming abilities are not dependent on “thinking in” language.
1:05:35 –Some evidence from “verbal interference” tasks suggests that, when carrying out color discrimination tasks, people rely on language in the moment.
1:09:00 – The Odeuropa project.
1:10:20 – The website of Noam Sobel’s lab.
Dr. Majid’s end of show recommendations:
What the Nose Knows, by Avery Gilbert
The Philosophy of Olfactory Perception, by Andreas Keller
Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, by Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synott
Neuroenology, by Gordon Shepard
Cork Dork, by Bianca Bosker
You can keep up with Dr. Majid on Twitter (@asifa_majid).
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://disi.org), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster, and Associate Director Isabelle Laumer. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).
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