Scent and Sense
by Eileen Campbell • March 19, 2015
The scent of something drifts into your awareness. It’s so familiar, you know you know what it is…but you can’t quite name it.
This inability to identify and name scents is common. But Asifa Majid, a psycholinguist speaking at the recent AAAS meeting, reported on a group of people who draw on a dozen different words to describe smells. People who speak the Jahai language in Malaysia can describe scents with the same ease most people describe colors, using similarly specific terms.
Majid gave this group of hunter-gatherers a scratch-and-sniff test of 12 smells, including cinnamon, lemon, smoke, rose, banana, gasoline, and soap. When she asked “What smell is this?” the Jahai named the scents easily, using specific words. There was broad agreement between individuals on those names, even though the test smells were not familiar to them. They used words that meant, roughly translated, “to have a stinging smell” (used for smells like gasoline, smoke, and bat droppings), “to smell roasted” (used for roasted food), and “to have a bloody smell that attracts tigers” (used for smells like civet and squirrel blood).
English speakers struggled with the same test. Instead of naming the smells, they used analogies—like a banana, or like soap—or gave general descriptive terms—stinky, or fragrant. “If people displayed similar performance with a visual object, they would be diagnosed as aphasic and sent for medical help,” says Majid.
Some research suggests there are inherent biological reasons for the difficulty in naming smells. Neurologist Jay Gottfried, speaking at the same meeting, has identified a specific region of the brain that bridges the smell centers and the naming centers. Damage to this region impairs people’s ability to name smells. Smelling is an important biological function—but naming smells might not be so critical, thinks Gottfried, and thus not well wired into our brains.
But Majid believes that by testing only urbanized Westerners, we’ll miss underlying human abilities. Western society, cleansed with Lysol and coated with deodorant, is scent-impoverished. By contrast, the forest home of the Jahai people is rich in odors that are important for finding food, avoiding danger, and maintaining health. Knowing a smell that might attract tigers has clear survival value, and the Jahai learn and use terms for smells from early childhood. “There has to be something beyond the brain’s ability to name an odor,” Majid says. If your culture values smells, and your language gives you the words, naming scents is not so elusive a task.
Read more stories by Exploratorium science writers from the 2015 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) here: