Avery Gilbert has a long track record in the field of smell psychology. His research papers have been published in renowned academic journals since the 1980s, and he has been a consultant to many large firms in the fragrance industry. What the Nose Knows is his first book, and deals with the psychology of odor perception. Piet Vroon and Rachel Herz have written very accessible books on this subject, but their work was primarily focused on the relation between olfaction, emotion and behavior. Gilbert's main mission is a different one: to challenge the assumption that the human nose is somehow inferior to that of other species. "Dogs have great noses," he writes in the chapter on olfactory prodigies, "but it's time to stop the trash talk and give ourselves more credit" (p.63). His message is simple: there's nothing wrong with our nose, we're just not very good at using it.
Since the days of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), the notion that humans have a poor sense of smell has been more or less taken for granted. Scientists agreed that olfaction had lost its importance to humans from an evolutionary perspective, and that it was barely of use to modern man. In recent years, however, neurobiologists and sensory physiologists have gained better insights into the inner mechanisms of our nose, and have come to the conclusion that our odor sensitivity is actually similar to that of apes. This sensitivity does not depend on the number of olfactory nerve cells or odor receptors in our nose, nor on its internal surface area — it's how the information is processed by the brain.
The same is true for comparative smell abilities between people. Perfumers, for instance, don't have better noses than the average person: they simply make better use of the same sensory information. They do so by relying on their cognitive skills — being able to discern and name fragrances is not a matter of pure nose-sensitivity, but of training. And thanks to CT-scan technology, that difference can actually be rendered visually. In sniffing experiments conducted with groups of smell experts and non-experts, individuals from the former group showed heightened activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is involved in cognitive judgments. By contrast, most activity among the non-experts took place in primary sensory areas and zones of the brain associated with emotional response. Another interesting difference between professionals and amateurs is in their sniffing technique. Perfumers tend to favor short sniffs; when non-experts are asked to identify a scent on a paper blotter, they are more inclined to take it all in at once. What they probably don't know is that long sniffs actually dull the nose.
Sensory researchers have just begun to understand the psychological interplay between smell and taste, and What the Nose Knows is one of the few pop-science books to address this subject in a clear, accessible manner. While I believe that Gilbert cuts too many corners when he dismisses anthropological and sociological insights into the culture of taste, there is indeed more biological evidence today to support new approaches to cultural differences between ethnicities. Don’t expect too many scientific details here: it’s all explained by means of practical examples.
As much as I enjoyed learning about the psychology and biology of smell, I couldn’t help frowning at the author's tendency to comment on things he clearly knows very little about. In the chapter on Smell Museums, for instance, he describes the Osmothèque in Versailles as a seemingly boring place to visit:
There are more than 1,400 perfumes in the Osmothèque's collection, including 500 that are no longer manufactured. Despite having worked in the industry, I find it hard to get excited about visiting a perfume museum–how many little bottles can one stand to look at? (take one down, pass it around, 1,399 bottles of scent on the wall...) (p.213)
Being opinionated is fine, as long as you know what you’re talking about: the Osmothèque doesn’t put its collection on display, it’s a place where you use your nose. And while we’re at it: dismissing people’s work by means of ridicule (likening olfactory art to "junior-high-school pranks") is often a proof of weakness; personally, it’s something that really puts me off. I found more examples of character bashing than are worth repeating here.
In short, I can’t help having mixed feelings about this book. It’s a mine of information, but I could do with a less polemical tone. The author’s criticisms are often unsubstantiated, and add nothing to our understanding of smell. So +1 for the original and refreshing content, and -1 for trying to be witty at the expense of others.
Avery Gilbert has published research articles in Chemical Senses, the American Journal of Psychology, the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Physiology & Behavior, and Nature Neuroscience. He also wrote the Compendium of Olfactory Research (Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1995).
What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life
New York: Crown Publishing Group (2008)
Hardcover, 304 p.
Marcello: How interesting, JUST this morning Amazon.com recommended this book and “The Scent Trail” by Celia Lyttleton for me. I hate snarky comments such as the ones you describe in the book, and the Osmothèque quote is laughable, isn't it?…maybe this is one to read from a LIBRARY copy….K
Wonder how the author feels about visiting the library? So many little books! How many little books can one stand to read?
Not familiar with “The Scent Trail”, will have to look that one up… Thanks Kevin!
Pity it didn't go over well. He's massively smart, charming as hell in person, very knowledgeable, and adamant about the fact that there are plenty of books about the world of Smell, but few that recommend the human nose as an undervalued talent. A+ from this court; the snark is part of his 13-year-old mad-scientist quality, If you get the chance to hear him read, you would enjoy it. Scientists often don't know which of our notes to play — or else they'd make for much better theatre.
I have read “The Scent Trail ” and recommend it. The author Celia Lytellton is on a quest to track various perfume ingredients back to the country of origin. Lots of travel stories, history, sidebar pieces about spices and aromatic plants, and details on the manufacturing of perfume, with the focus on natural essences.
I am almost finished reading Avery Gilbert's book. I have to say that I have really enjoyed it, even more than the other recently published books that cover similar ground: like Rachel Herz's “The Scent of Desire” , or Luca Turin's “The Secret of Scent”. Both of these are excellent books for the serious perfumista to read as well, but Gilbert's is a livelier read, and I found the tone more humorous than snarky. It seems to be quite well-researched, which does lead him to contradict statements made by a number of other scent experts, including Herz. He makes a solid case based on his research when he contradicts a commonly held view, or another academic in his field, and I don't remember thinking that any of his points were personal attacks at all. (Although I wouldn't be surprised if there was some professional rivalry in play…)
Thanks for bringing this book to everyone's attention. Despite having read a lot of books on scent, olfactory science, and perfume, I found it fascinating and Gilbert included material that was new to me.
Thank you for your recommendation, pearlbaily! And I did learn a lot from Gilbert's book too – I find the physiology and psychology of smell incredibly interesting (and way beyond my competences, of course).
carmennovia, I guess it really comes down to personal taste. I heard dr Gilbert on the radio a while ago (NPR?), and he came across as a charming person indeed. Wouldn't mind sitting down with him, and learn more from his stories.