Objectivity of Olfaction – Do we smell the same thing?

Luca Turin says smell is objective, just like vision is. A clearly defined wavelength, allowing no room for subjective perception. That is, in my humble, non-scientific opinion, quite possibly true, even if Turin has a lot of trouble getting his peers to acknowledge his theory. (His struggles have been chronicled charmingly by Chandler Burr in his book “The Emperor of Scent”.)

Translating that objective impression we receive via nose to the brain, into language though, is a very different and highly subjective endeavour. You have to find words to describe what you are smelling and you do that through association. “It smells like…it reminds me of…”, that is where the trouble starts. That is where objectivity goes out the window. We all have our own, deeply personal associations with smells, our individual tastes and preferences, they all differ and are shaped by our personalities and life experiences.

In abstract art what you see may differ from what I see, because we interpret the objective evidence on display differently. Not only do we interpret on an intellectual level (“It looks like a cow”), but, more importantly, we react emotionally to what we see (“I hate cows”). Objectively the canvas is what it is, it can be analyzed and documented in an objective way (“It is a black and white blob.”). It is similar with the sense of hearing.

With smells, and the creative way to harness them, the art of perfumery, it is not much different. We interpret what we perceive intellectually (“It smells like an apple”), emotionally (“Hhmmm, I love the smell of apples!”) and associate memories or experiences with the smell, thus influencing our emotional interpretation (“Apples always remind me of the great chilshood summers I used to spend at Grandma´s house.”). The objective interpretation would be to put the smell through a gas chromatograph and identify the molecules that comprise the smell. (“Molecules x, y and z combine in such a way as to evoke the smell of apples.”)

I started out writing this piece with the idea to explore the differences between our senses of seeing, hearing and smelling, but the longer I think about it, the more I realize I can´t find any. EVERYTHING we perceive with our sensory equipment is filtered. By passing through our personal screens, sounds, sights and smells are not only interpreted but also enhanced, deflected or diminished, depending on their nature AND ours. That is the subjective part. But all our senses, olfaction as well as the auditive and visual senses, can be objectified, by looking at their physical evidence, be it wavelenth or shape, hard facts that are not open for interpretation or discussion, just like a work of art can be objectified by just looking at the facts (“It´s a green canvas with a black and white blob in the middle.” to simplify it for the sake of the example).

Many people think smell has no hard evidence whatsoever, that it is evanescent and volatile, personal and subjective only.
Luca Turin´s work (made accesible for the non-scientific folks in his book “The Secret of Scent”), shows us that it is not. Smell is a sense like the others we have. A highly sophisticated instrument, essential for survival, not a frivolous extra, that needn´t be taken seriously.

What we smell is the same, how we interpret it, isn´t. We would have to go into the territory of philosophy, when we start to think about whether there even is such a thing as objectivity, because no single person is able to perceive any outside impulse removed from his physiological and psychological makeup. But that is what we created machines for…

Nonetheless smell is – of course – subject to taste and preference, interpretation and emotion.
What isn´t?

Picture sources: villagevoice.com, mashedmusings.wordpress.com some rights reserves, thank you!

About Olfactoria

I'm on a journey through the world of fragrance - come with me!
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