As I’m sure you are aware, dear readers, I share my life with two hulking yet adorable dogs. I love seeing how smart they are in their dog-specific skills. To change things up, we have a new game: I stand on the porch and throw dog treats for them to find. Jill, in particular, has proven quite adept with her nose: She was very fond of scent training back in Toronto, and now both she and Samson spend a lot of energy finding and rolling in all kinds of gross things in the hiking trails around our new home in rural southeastern Ontario. (Yay…?)
So, as a human with dogs in my life, I have a bit of an inferiority complex about my scent detection abilities. Thankfully, as I was sitting on my back porch working my way through back issues of The New Yorker and watching Jill and Samson snuffle through the grass for amphibious prey, I came across an article that explains why we have such a hard time identifying scents. And I feel a bit better about it!
In short, it involves socialization. Generally, human noses (unless injured or affected by congenital smell disorders) are able to detect differences between up to a trillion (!) scents. But the ability to describe and name what we smell depends on our culture. A team led by Asifa Majid, a psycholinguist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, pitted a group of Dutch speakers and a group of Jahai speakers against each other in a study verbally identifying scents. (Jahai is a language of hunter-gatherers in Malaysia and southern Thailand.):
“In Jahai, [in contrast to Dutch,] there are about a dozen abstract words in common use for distinct scents, such as the one that emanates from stale rice, mushrooms, cooked cabbage, and certain species of hornbill (yes, the bird). Majid couldn’t tell me for sure whether the Jahai facility with odor was the result of culture, physiology, or environment, but she suggested that their surroundings may play a significant role. When visiting the Jahai, Majid noticed a rich smellscape—heady wafts from flowers and pungent elephant dung. The thick jungle, she said, seemed to render vision less important.”
In European/North American culture, scientists theorize, sight is king due to a holdover from the Enlightenment (which emphasized visual evidence), childhood training (when was the last time you saw a Sesame Street sketch that taught scents like they do colours?), or even physiology (scents being processed by the limbic system, which, as the brain area associated with memory and emotion, is less able to turn around a complex description). As a result, the Dutch subjects of the study took an average of thirteen seconds to spit out a vague approximation of a smell’s description. The Jahai nailed them in an average of two seconds.
All this spells hope for me as I sit on my porch sniffing the country air, filled with scents of, um… pine? I plan to ask Samson and Jill for tips. Updates to come!