You’ve no doubt heard that—as humans—our sense of smell is, well, kind of pathetic. The idea goes all the way back to Aristotle, that we have advanced senses—especially sight and hearing—and then lowly, underdeveloped ones—taste and smell. It’s an idea that has been repeated and elaborated over and over, throughout Western intellectual history. Along with it comes a related notion: that smells are nearly impossible to talk about, that odors simply can’t be captured in words. These ideas may be old, but are they actually true?
A number of researchers would say they’re ripe for reconsideration. And my guest is one such researcher, Asifa Majid. She’s Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of York in the UK. For a decade now, Asifa’s been pioneering a new wave of research on human olfaction, especially how it interfaces with language, thought, and culture.
In this conversation we talk about the general notion that some kinds of experience are harder to put into words than others. We discuss Asifa’s fieldwork with hunter-gatherer groups in the Malay peninsula, as well as her studies with wine experts in the west. We talk about whether learning special smell terms seems to sharpen one’s ability to discriminate odors. And we venture beyond Asifa’s own work, to touch on a bunch of recent highlights from the broader science of olfaction.
This was such a fun conversation, folks! I’ve admired Asifa’s work on this topic since her very first paper. She’s a truly interdisciplinary thinker and, as you’ll hear, she’s got a nose for fun examples and deep questions.
Without further ado, on to my conversation with Dr. Asifa Majid! Enjoy.