Name that smell

Name that smell

That Smell

As usual, Sandra took a deep breath before entering the dreaded mid-section of her morning walk to work. This part of the route, as she’d mentally labelled it, ‘the underpass of doom,’ had become a real test for her. She now knew instinctively what to do. In fact, this had become a bit of a game, and she wondered how many other commuters might also have joined the fun. But this time, it all went wrong…an overly zealous cyclist wearing a fluorescent yellow helmet and brilliant blue face mask came rushing down the tunnel, ringing his bell whilst zooming towards her. In the shock, Sandra gasped and wasn’t sure what hit her more forcefully; the adrenaline spike from such a close miss, or the putrid smell that instantly filled her lungs.

During her morning tea break, Sandra decided to broach the topic with her colleagues, to see if she was the only one who had been playing the ‘hold your breath for the whole tunnel’ game on the to- and from work. It turned out that Bob, Caroline and Jack also frequented the same route, and they too partook in the same daily ritual. But then came a big problem…as hard as they tried, neither of the four could communicate the smell to one another in plain English. Words such as ‘disgusting’ and ‘offensive’ came up often, however, they agreed that these more described their subsequent feeling about the smell, rather than the smell itself.


If only Sandra and her pals had known a bit about qualia. I’m not saying it would have ended their discussion because actually, asking the question, what are qualia? can be akin to an Alice in Wonderland experience. But alas, the hard problem of consciousness doesn’t go away, so let’s delve in.

I was recently reading a New Scientist review article (Coghlan 2018) of a study into hunter-gatherer olfaction (Majid and Kruspe 2018). The overview is that a group of hunter-gatherers are far better at agreeing on the names of certain smells than their neighbouring horticultural group. It seems that they have developed a system that benefits them, whereas sharing information based on smell data is not as important for the plant-based community.

So, what are the implications of this research? Well, let me add one more interesting point – westerners can discriminate between over a trillion smells. Isn’t that incredible! But it seems that poor Sharon, and the rest of us (perhaps with the exception of sommeliers); we haven’t developed a common vocabulary to agree upon what we’re smelling. We can partially put this down to the fact that we rely heavily on the sense of vision in our society. Go to India and drive on the motorway, however, and you’ll experience a people who must have an intricate understanding as to the meaning of different sounds.


The point I am getting at is that qualia are a complicated thing. What does it mean to experience a sound or a smell, and how is that experience related to the words that come out of my mouth? Let’s take this snippet from the New Scientist article as an example:

Most English-speakers know what “purple” looks like, but are fuzzy on what “acrid” smells like.

On the one hand, I get where the author is coming from. That is, we all agree on naming colours in a certain way. On the other hand, I have no way of knowing what your internal experience of ‘purple-ness’ is. One reason why this question of qualia is such a ‘hard problem’ is that it isn’t at all obvious where our qualitative experience of the world comes from. Explaining brain activity is one thing, and then understanding how the ‘currency’ of electrical patterns gets exchanged into that of qualia is a real headache for neuroscience. Indeed, many scientists would be forgiven for not appreciating that there is a problem, because it rarely gets a mention outside of philosophy. And qualia aren’t the only issue; there’s also the question of who is experiencing the qualia?


That’s quite enough brain tickling for one article, and I will leave you with one thought. If we as westerners can differentiate between 1 trillion smells, is it likely that better smell has developed in hunter-gatherers (or that we have lost the capacity to smell as well)? Alternatively, could it be the case that what differs is not our capacity to experience sense data, but rather the value we place on it within a cultural context?

And I guess there’s only one way to find out; Sharon and your friends – perhaps you need to spend more time in that underpass, brainstorming until you can agree on what to call that smell. Who’s ready to join them?


Coghlan, Andy. 2018. “The People Who Name Smells as Easily as Colours.” New Scientist 237 (3162):12.
Majid, Asifa, and Nicole Kruspe. 2018. “Hunter-Gatherer Olfaction Is Special.” Current Biology: CB 28 (3):409–13.e2.