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Dec 1, 2023

The Scents of Language with Dr. Asifa Majid (podcast)

A new wave of research into human olfaction explores how smell interfaces with language, thought, and culture.

By Templeton Staff

A new wave of research into human olfaction explores how smell interfaces with language, thought, and culture.

Researcher Asifa Majid investigates the relationship between language, culture, and cognition by conducting studies with adults in different cultures and sub-cultures, and by tracing how concepts develop over a child’s lifetime in diverse cultural contexts. When thinking about what "aspects of thoughts" humans can "communicate readily in language" and what aspects are difficult for us to communicate, "smell came up as a candidate of something that was difficult for humans to talk about," she says. "That raised the question, is smell really that much more difficult to express than other sensory modalities like touch or taste or our visual modalities that are meant to be the dominant senses for humans? We decided to try and empirically test this by comparing how readily we can communicate about different sensory modalities in different languages." In this podcast episode she talks about her explorations in this area.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"You’ve no doubt heard that — as humans — our sense of smell is, well, kind of pathetic. The idea goes all the way back to Aristotle, that we have advanced senses—especially sight and hearing — and then lowly, underdeveloped ones — taste and smell. It’s an idea that has been repeated and elaborated over and over, throughout Western intellectual history. Along with it comes a related notion: that smells are nearly impossible to talk about, that odors simply can’t be captured in words. These ideas may be old, but are they actually true?

A number of researchers would say they’re ripe for reconsideration. And my guest is one such researcher, Asifa Majid. She’s Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of York in the UK. For a decade now, Asifa’s been pioneering a new wave of research on human olfaction, especially how it interfaces with language, thought, and culture.

In this conversation we talk about the general notion that some kinds of experience are harder to put into words than others. We discuss Asifa’s fieldwork with hunter-gatherer groups in the Malay peninsula, as well as her studies with wine experts in the west. We talk about whether learning special smell terms seems to sharpen one’s ability to discriminate odors. And we venture beyond Asifa’s own work, to touch on a bunch of recent highlights from the broader science of olfaction."

Play the episode with the above player.

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Image credit: Detail of painting by Alexander van Haecken via Rijks Museum

Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.