The Sense of Smell as a Novel Means to Explore Language, Culture, and Biology

Saturday, 14 February 2015: 3:00 PM-4:30 PM
Room LL21E (San Jose Convention Center)
There is a long tradition of underestimating the sense of smell and the information it provides. Immanuel Kant deemed olfaction to be the “most dispensable” of our senses; Charles Darwin wrote it was “of extremely slight service”; and Steven Pinker denounced it as vestigial in humans. Similarly, language seems to fail us when it comes to odors. There appears to be a lexical gap for smells, in stark contrast to colors, shapes, or sounds, and people struggle to name even familiar, everyday aromas. But this longstanding picture of olfaction is today being challenged from a number of directions. Previous estimates held that humans could only distinguish 10,000 odors, but this estimate has recently been revised to more than 1,000,000,000,000. Great strides have been made in unlocking the perceptual bases of olfactory discrimination and categorization, too. Researchers are now able to predict both behavioral and neural activity in response to entirely novel smells. At the same time, neuroimaging studies reveal the possible bottleneck in olfactory naming. Cross-cultural data from hunter-gatherer communities in the Malay Peninsula open up yet new vistas; speakers of the Jahai and Maniq languages have elaborate dedicated odor lexicons and name smells with apparent ease. This symposium brings together cutting-edge research from linguistics, psychology, and biology that together shed new light onto the human potential for olfaction, and the interplay of language, mind, and culture.
Asifa Majid, Radboud University
Noam Sobel, Weizmann Institute of Science
Measuring Smell: A Metric Approach to Olfaction
Jay Adam Gottfried, Northwestern University
The Neural Basis of Olfactory Language
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