It’s hard to fool a nose

Making Camembert

Ann-Sophie Barwich

is a cognitive scientist, empirical philosopher and historian of science, technology and the senses. She is assistant professor at Indiana University, Bloomington in the departments of history, philosophy of science and cognitive science. Her book Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind is forthcoming in 2020.


Your nose is the best biosensor on the face of the Earth. This claim must sound counterintuitive since the sense of smell has acquired a rather poor reputation over the past centuries. Philosophers and scientists alike have only rarely singled it out for close study. The Enlightenment philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac remarked dryly in 1754 that: ‘Of all the senses, it is the one which appears to contribute least to the cognitions of the human mind.’ Charles Darwin was not alone among scientists in considering smell a primitive system with reduced sophistication in humans. But are these ideas grounded in fact, or merely based on anti-olfactory prejudices passed on from generation to generation?

Recent scientific advances have debunked several myths about smell. First, human olfactory physiology is not in evolutionary decline. In 2017, a reviewin Science finally set the record straight by analysing contemporary research in olfaction. Although smaller in proportion to overall body mass, the olfactory bulb (the first cortical structure of the olfactory pathway) in humans has just as many neurons as in rodents. Further, the bulb is one of the most densely populated neuronal areas of the brain. It thus depends on how you measure size and define proportions.

Second, the sense of smell continues to be important to human cognition and to culture. Cross-cultural studies about language use have shown that other societies, such as the Jahai and Maniq in Southeast Asia, have extensive odour vocabularies and rites. Likewise, in the Western hemisphere, the fragrance industry has been successively expanding. In the United States alone, scented products generate more than $25 billion annually (ranging from perfumes to detergents, all kinds of creams and body products, up to scented trash bags).

Increasingly, loss of the sense of smell is being treated as a serious harm in clinical settings. Besides, the sense of smell is key to flavour perception. Indeed, most of what you perceive as the taste of food and drink is actually smell, being caused by volatile chemicals travelling from the cavity of your mouth through the open space of the pharynx up to your nasal epithelium. And there’s no way around it: the spice trade, with its growth following the Silk Road, has shaped the modern global socioeconomic landscape as much as – if not more than – philosophical discussion on reason and morality. It is surely now time to rethink our assumptions about the sense of smell, and its psychological and philosophical implications.[…]

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