The Objectivity of Smell

Is our sense of smell more like vision or more like pain?

By Alisa Mandrigin


We don’t always value our sense of smell as much as we might. In his blog post, Taste and Smell: the hidden senses, Keith Wilson highlighted the role that smell plays in what we typically think of as taste experience. Sometimes we are struck by the way that olfactory experiences can provoke intense and vivid memories, but we don’t spend much time thinking about the strength or the nature of that connection. In a live demonstration at The Hidden Senses, Jonathan Silas will be delving into the link between our olfactory experiences and memory.

Something that is no less striking is the affective aspect of our olfactory experiences. We like some smells and find them pleasant and we dislike other smells and find them unpleasant. And the pleasantness or otherwise of our olfactory experiences motivates us to act. The smell of rotting fish is disgusting and repulses us; the smell of coffee is appealing and attracts us. We’ll come back to the connection between affect and smell shortly.

It can be tempting to think of olfactory experience as purely sensational. Unlike vision or touch, which really seem to present us with an external world of material objects, smell experiences can seem as though they are just a modification of our consciousness: something that happens in us rather than being world-directed. How, then, should we think of our sense of smell? Are olfactory experiences purely sensational, or are they ways of gaining information about the world?

Olfaction does not present us with material objects, but this is not enough to show that it doesn’t tell us about our environment. Olfaction is different from vision because it provides us with a different kind of information about the world: in olfaction we experience smells. This means that we can give a representational account of olfactory experience: what olfactory experiences represent are smells and properties of smells.

Adopting a representational view of olfactory experience allows us to treat our sense of smell as objective: it informs us about how things are in the world and thereby puts us in a position to act on and in the world. It also makes it possible for us to give the same kind of account of olfaction that we give of the other perceptual modalities. It’s desirable for us to give a unified account of our perceptual experiences, so if we have a representational view of, for example, vision and audition, then this gives us reason to favour a representational account of olfactory experience too.

According to some (‘strong’) representational accounts of perceptual experience, the phenomenal character of experience—what your experience is subjectively like—is fully determined by its representational content. One of the main motivations for this strong representationalist position is that experiences seem to be transparent. When you attend to your experience all that you seem to encounter are the objects and properties you perceive, and not the experience itself or its properties.

How does the connection between affect and smell fit in with this picture? The strong representationalist claims that all there is to olfactory experience is the representation of something objective. If we adopt this view, then we have to think of the connection between olfaction and affect as causal: olfactory experiences elicit affective responses distinct from the experience itself. One model for how this might work takes olfactory experiences to elicit affective responses via intermediary judgements about how harmful or otherwise the source of the smell is. That is, it is the judgements we make on the basis of our olfactory experiences that elicit affective responses in us. The smell of rotting fish leads to a judgement about the existence of inedible seafood in the vicinity, and this judgement occasions a disgust response in us.

The problem with this view is that it seems to require that we have knowledge of the context in which we smell the unpleasant smell in order for us to have a suitable affective response. Yet smells can be pleasing or not independent of the situation in which we smell them and independent of our knowledge about what has produced the smell. Even when we know a smell is produced by something innocuous it can still be disgusting. We can override any negative associations we have with the smell and it makes no difference: we still find it repellent.

The alternative to thinking of the connection between olfaction and affect as being causal is to think that there is a direct, constitutive connection between the two. So, for example, we could think that experiences of smells, like pain experiences, have a hedonic quality. The olfactory experience itself is pleasant or unpleasant. This would account for the phenomenal character of good and bad smells as well as explaining the connection between olfaction and affect. It is the unpleasantness of the experience of smelling rotten fish that elicits revulsion. But if we think that olfactory experiences have a hedonic quality, then we have to deny that olfactory experiences are transparent and hence reject strong representationalism. If, when we attend to our olfactory experiences, we encounter qualities of the experiences themselves, then what the experiences are like for us cannot be explained purely in terms of the representational content of those experiences.

At The Hidden Senses: the secrets of taste and smell we will be inviting the public to explore the objectivity of smell with us by examining how well we can recognise and distinguish a series of simple and complex odorants and by investigating their pleasantness and unpleasantness.

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