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The Human Sense of Smell: From Hunter-Gatherers to Wine Experts

The importance of our sense of smell has been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Olfaction plays a critical role in a wide range of human behaviours and yet has been relatively under-appreciated. Over the years, olfactory scientists have emphasised the importance of smell in unconscious processes, particularly approach-avoidance behaviours, and have claimed accordingly that olfaction is not amenable to conscious reflection or linguistic encoding. Recent work by cognitive scientists challenges such claims to show that humans have far more potential in this domain than previously recognized. For example, under experimental conditions western participants typically find it difficult to name odors, but hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, can name them with relative ease. This variation raises interesting questions about the exact relationship between language, olfaction, and emotion. In this talk, I will present both cross-cultural and expert studies (e.g., wine experts) to untangle how language, perception, and emotion interact in this lesser-explored sensory modality.

Sponsored by Psychology Department and the Office for Institutional Diversity

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