Can You Name That Scent?

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We are great at identifying a color as blue versus yellow or a surface as scratchy, soft, or bumpy. But how do we do with a scent? Not so well, it turns out. If I presented you with several everyday scents, ranging from chocolate to sawdust to tea, you would probably name fewer than half of them correctly.

This sort of dismal performance is often chalked up to idiosyncrasies of the human brain. Compared to many mammals, we have paltry neural smelling machinery. To smell something, the smell receptors in your upper nasal cavity must detect a molecule and pass this information on to twin nubs that stick out of the brain. These nubs are called olfactory bulbs and they carry out the earliest steps of scent processing in the brain. While the size of the human brain is impressive with respect to our bodies, the human olfactory bulbs are nothing to brag about. Below, take a look at the honking olfactory bulbs (relative to overall brain size) on the dog. Compared to theirs, our bulbs look like a practical joke.

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Human (upper) and dog (lower) brain photos indicating the olfactory bulb and tract. From International Journal of Morphology (Kavoi & Jameela, 2011).

It’s easy to blame our bulbs for our smelling deficiencies. Indeed, many scientists have offered brain-based explanations for our shortcomings in the smell department. But could there be more to the story? What if we are hamstrung by a lackluster odor vocabulary? After all, we use abstract, categorical words to identify colors (e.g., blue), shapes (round), and textures (rough), but we generally identify odors by their specific sources. You might say: “This smells like coffee,” or “I detect a hint of cinnamon,” or offer up a subjective judgment like, “That smells gross.” We lack a descriptive, abstract vocabulary for scents. Could this fact account for some of our smell shortcomings?

Linguists Asifa Majid and Niclas Burenhult tackled this question by studying a group of people with a smell vocabulary quite unlike our own. The Jahai are a relatively small group of hunter-gatherers who live in Malaysia and Thailand. They use their sense of smell often in everyday life and their native language (also called Jahai) includes many abstract words for odors. Check out the first two columns in the table below for several examples of abstract odor words in Jahai.

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Table from Majid & Burenhult (2014) in Cognition providing Jahai odor and color words, as well as their rough translations into English.

Majid and Burenhult tested whether Jahai speakers and speakers of American English could effectively and consistently name scents in their respective native languages. They stacked the deck in favor of the Americans by using odors that are all commonplace for Americans, while many are unfamiliar to the Jahai. The scents were: cinnamon, turpentine, lemon, smoke, chocolate, rose, paint thinner, banana, pineapple, gasoline, soap, and onion. For a comparison, they also asked both groups to name a range of color swatches.

The researchers published their findings in a recent issue of Cognition. As expected, English speakers used abstract descriptions for colors but largely source-based descriptions for scents. Their responses  differed substantially from one person to the next on the odor task, while they were relatively consistent on the color task. Their answers were also nearly five times longer for the odor task than for the color task. That’s because English speakers struggled and tried to describe individual scents in more than one way. For example, here’s how one English speaker struggled to describe the cinnamon scent:

“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? Ok. Big Red. Big Red gum.”

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Figure from Majid & Burenhult (2014) comparing the “codability” (consistency) and abstract versus source-based responses from Americans and Jahai.

Now compare that with Jahai speakers, who gave slightly shorter responses to name odors than to name colors and used abstract descriptors 99% of the time for both tasks. They were equally consistent at naming both colors and scents. And, if anything, this study probably underestimated the odor-naming consistency of the Jahai because many of the scents used in the test were unfamiliar to them.

The performance of the Jahai proves that odors are not inherently inexpressible, either by virtue of their diversity or the human brain’s inability to do them justice. As the authors state in the paper’s abstract and title, odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language.

Yet this discovery is not the final word either. The differences between Americans and Jahai don’t end with their vocabularies. The Jahai participants in the study use their sense of smell every day for foraging (their primary source of income). Presumably, their language contains a wealth of odor words because of the integral role this sense plays in their lives. While Americans and other westerners are surrounded by smells, few of us rely on them for our livelihood, safety, or well-being. Thanks to the adaptive nature of brain organization, there may be major differences in how Americans and Jahai represent odors in the brain. In fact, I’d wager that there are. Neuroscience studies have shown time and again that training and experience have very real effects on how the brain represents information from the senses.

As with all scientific discoveries, answers raise new questions. Is it the Jahai vocabulary that allows the Jahai to consistently identify and categorize odors? Or is it their lifelong experience and expertise that gave rise to their vocabulary and, separately, trained their brains in ways that alter their experience of odor? If someone magically endowed English speakers with the power to speak Jahai, would they have the smelling abilities to put its abstract odor words to use?

Would a rose by any other name smell as Itpit? The answer awaits the linguist, neuroscientist, or psychologist who is brave and clever enough to sniff it out.

Asifa Majid, Niclas Burenhult (2014). Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language Cognition, 130 (2), 266-270 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.11.004

Photograph by Dennis Wong, used via Creative Commons license

3 responses

  1. Pingback: swordofscience | What’s That Smell? – The Language of Scent

  2. I’m bilingual, speaking both English and Malay, with the latter being my mother tongue. Very interesting indeed because I have never realized how true this is. In Malay, the word “hancing” is used to describe the smell of urine. I believe no similar word exists in English. Another word is “bacin” which is the smell of dried saliva. “Tengik” refers to the smell of old coconut oil or burnt rice.”Hamis” means fishy smell. “Busuk” is catcj-all word for anything foul-smelling. Interestingly, in the Malay language, there are only two words to describe pleasant smells – “harum” and “wangi”.

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