Why Don’t You Smell What I Smell?

sentidos e aromas

Throughout history, sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell (olfaction) have been the five traditionally recognized stimuli. Western societies usually regard the sense of smell as dispensable.

Some theories of sensory evolution suggest our ancestors opted for distinctive cognitive and perceptual development by sacrificing olfactory acuity. Thus increasing vision precision at the expense of olfaction. But a study done by  Asifa Majid and Ewelina Wnuk found that to be the opposite for speakers of Maniq and Jahai, languages indigenous to southern Thailand.

The neglect of olfaction in the West is a result of our own cultural presumptions and sensory biases; smell suffers from neglect, not an inevitable evolutionary trade-off like we thought.

The right language (descriptive and specific words for aromas) can actually enhance the perception of aroma, as language has also enhanced, inflected and refined our other senses. By having a specific and detailed description for a smell you are able to easily identify the aroma. Other cultures have words for aromas that neither simply link them back to a source, nor do they just rank smells as pleasant or repulsive. These languages have an array of abstract terms that allow individuals to classify even unfamiliar scents.

“You must learn to heed your senses. Humans use but a tiny percentage of theirs. They barely look, they rarely listen, they never smell, and they think that they can only experience feelings through their skin. But they talk, oh, do they talk.”
― Michael Scott, The Alchemyst

Westerners don’t appreciate the value of the sense of smell, making our inability to smell  a cultural problem, not an invariant fact of human nature. Our language hinders our ability to perceive aroma.