One of the many things that the pandemic forced us to rethink is the importance of a sense we usually don’t give much attention to: Our sense of smell. More than half of people with Covid-19 experience the loss of smell or taste and while two-thirds recover within six to eight weeks, many are left without much improvement months down the line. Some of the people who regain their sense of smell, experience it as hugely altered (parosmia) — aromas that they used to enjoy are now overbearingly pungent, and even revolting.
The recent progress in the scientific investigation of smell means we now know a lot more about it than we did even 30 years ago: We understand that smell works rather differently from other senses, like vision. Just as you can lose your sense of smell, you can train it – and become a lot more sensitive to the nuances of what a wine smells like. But perhaps most importantly, we have understood that our sense of smell is not just the reception of raw data from our environment. Smell involves judgement and interpretation, and so a different context can alter the way we perceive of the same sensory stimuli. Smelling is thinking.
So what do these new discoveries mean for philosophy? Does our understanding of smell mean that the classic model of the mind as a mirror of the external world is wrong? And what does knowing the role smell plays in our choice of sexual partners mean for our idea of ourselves as rational agents?
Ann Sophie Barwich is Assistant Professor at Indiana University Bloomington, and an academic with a dual identity: a cognitive scientist as well as a philosopher.
Ann is the author of the book: Smellosophy: What the Nose tells the Mind , which highlights the importance of thinking about the sense of smell both through empirical research in neuroscience as well as through philosophy and cultural history.
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Music by Pataphysical
Artwork by Nick Halliday