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Words Fail When It Comes To Aromas

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK. So that's color, but what about your sense of smell? Here's a task that's harder than you might think. Put a smell into words. We asked some willing subjects to close their eyes, and take a whiff and describe a piece of garlic without using the word garlic.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh boy. It's earthy, stings your nostrils.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It smells kind of, like, warm and rich.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Smells a little spicy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Savory. I guess that's also a smell.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Strong, chili, hot - that's probably all I can think of.

MARTIN: A scientific paper published last week looks at why it is tough to put smells into words. Dr. Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, co-authored the study. And he says it's almost as if humans have a neurological deficit when it comes to smells.

DR. JAY GOTTFRIED: For example, if I gave you 10 common objects for you to view and name, you'd probably name them all without any problem. If I give you 10 common smells, but maybe blindfold you so you don't have any other information about them, you'll have great difficulty naming them all. Maybe you would get 5 or 6 out of 10.

MARTIN: So is this because our sense of smell isn't as acute as our vision?

GOTTFRIED: I think the human sense of smell is actually quite excellent. And there's more and more research coming out suggesting that the human sense of smell is finely tuned to different odors that we can discriminate odor molecules that maybe differ by one single atom. So the issue is I believe that trying to bridge the olfactory information with the language system is deficient. And kind of the bridge between the two is wobbly and a bit treacherous.

MARTIN: If I was in this study, what was a substance that you would've put in front of me? What's the kind of answer I would've given? And what would've been a more precise way to respond?

GOTTFRIED: So let's say we gave you the smell of orange. We put an orange smell inside a bottle. You can't see what's inside of it. And we ask you to name it. And you may come up with the word orange. You might say citrus. You might say lemons. You might say fruity, or you might say my grandmother's sock drawer kind of depending on your own personal experience and associations. What's happened here is there's a kind of looseness or imprecision in extracting a name from the odor you're smelling.

MARTIN: That was neuroscientist Dr. Jay Gottfried. The silver lining - he says anyone can describe smells as well as a perfumer or sommelier. We just have to train our noses and our tongues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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