Brain: The Inside Story
Through August 14, 2011
American Museum of Natural History
Admission: $24 ($14 for children), www.amnh.org
It is easy to identify a rose by sight and sometimes even by touch—but you might be surprised at how few people can identify it by scent. On February 23, when attendees of the sold-out lecture “Smell (and Taste) the Roses” at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—an accompaniment to the museum’s new Brain: The Inside Story exhibit—were asked to blindly identify the scent of a rose, only seven out of 105 people did so correctly. Some of the other guesses: wood, molasses, beeswax and papaya. “People differ in how they perceive many, if not all, odors,” explained perfume expert and speaker Mandy Aftel. “Everyone’s olfactory world is a unique, private world.”
The evening’s event, which included talks by Northwestern University neurologist Jay Gottfried and New York Times columnist and food author Harold McGee, ended up as a haphazard but fascinating introduction to the confusing world of olfaction and taste. Even though we are not terribly good at identifying scents, key behaviors such as hunting, maternal bonding and mating choice “all have odors at their heart,” Gottfried said. Animals “largely depend on smell for their survival.” One possible reason we struggle to name scents, Aftel suggested, could be because the olfactory parts of the brain are far from its language centers.
In addition, Gottfried explained, our perception of what we smell is strongly affected by our expectations. Case in point: when Gottfried uncorked a bottle of what he described as a smelly yellow liquid and asked the audience to raise their hands when they began to smell something, dozens did—only to find out later that the liquid was simply dyed water. “We are very susceptible to external clues and expectations about what we should smell,” Aftel said.
So why is smell so complicated? Part of the reason is that it is closely tied to our emotions. As Gottfried described, the olfactory system projects directly to the amygdala and the limbic system, regions responsible for mitigating emotions and behavior, which are complex and largely unique to an individual. With so much still to learn about human odor perception, be prepared for more surprises.