While describing smells, I find that I almost always rely on descripters from several other senses, more so than when I am describing something I see. For example, I see a beautiful sunset, and I think orange flames, marshmallow clouds. Or egg-yolk dripping down the sky. But when I smell a perfume, for example, I think it smells yellow, or purple. Low-pitched like violets, or higher toned like spicy roses. I might even think that it reminds me of the first time I watched a thunderstorm.
I first wondered whether this discrepancy was because we have spent more time, as a society, describing visual objects and therefore have enough adjectives to do so. While, when it comes to smell, we are somewhat behind and therefore borrow already established sensory descripters from vision and audition. Also it is possible, that we often define things by how they look and so a visual attribute is invariably bound to any sensory object. All this may be true, to some extent, but I do think there is something more. Possibly even a neurobiological basis for the multi-sensory manner in which we perceive smell. When I smell something, I don’t just use visual or auditory descriptors because I can’t find olfactory ones, but I actually experience smell in terms of multiple senses: colors, sounds and tactile sensations, generating crossmodal metaphors. Isn’t that the case with many of you?
From an evolutionary perspective, it seems to me that the hunter-gatherer humans probably used the visual and auditory senses to hunt for food, more so than they used smell. Smell probably was more part of the reward (‘Wow, that food smells/tastes amazing, let us hunt for more tomorrow!”) that acted as a propeller, intensifying the desire to hunt for more food. Thus when smell is more of a reward than a weapon, it is likely that you’d want a scent to evoke other sensory experiences, thus consolidating and reinforcing the olfactory experience, making it a more effective reward. Isn’t that possible?
I am not claiming any scientific basis for these arguments. This is just food for thought and I thought I’d chew on it for a bit..:).
So, take a sniff and tell me: How do YOU describe a smell?Note 1 : I am reading some scientific literature on olfactory processing, so I will update this post if I find something illuminating Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/misteraitch/4064414208/lightbox/ via Creative Commons Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pedrosimoes7/169983321/ via Creative Commons