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AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Ann Barwich.
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She's an assistant professor at Indiana University in Bloomington who divides her time between two departments - Cognitive Science and the History and Philosophy of Science. Barwich has blended these two disciplines together in her first book, Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind. Using science and philosophy, she tries to make sense of a sense that has seldom received as much attention as other senses have, like sight, hearing, and touch. And she examines the role that smell plays in our everyday choices - how scents affect our mind, our mood and even our mates. Recently, Ann virtually joined me over web conferencing in the WFIU studios.
Ann Barwich, welcome to Profiles.
ANN BARWICH: Thanks for having me.
AARON CAIN: I don't get to say this of too many people on program, but you were born in a country that no longer exists but in a city that still does.
ANN BARWICH: (Laughter) Yes. I was born in what now is referred to as East Germany, and I was actually born in one of the most famous towns in Germany, Weimar. Many Americans have heard of it in terms of the Weimar Republic. And East Germany, I mean, of course, was reunited with West Germany in the 1990s. And I was just four and a half years when that happened. But I actually remember seeing it on television. I was a little kid, and I saw these people jumping up and down on this wall with lots of graffiti. I was, like, “wow, what's happening? That's weird. Why are people so happy to jump on a wall?” And later, of course, I realized what I actually saw. But I'm one of those people. I'm very happy that the wall came down because, of course, my family couldn't move outside. And for me, it was a great chance to finally see the world.
AARON CAIN: You say you were only four or so when the wall came down. What else do you remember about being in East Germany when it was entering its last days of being East Germany?
ANN BARWICH: I remember a Hello Kitty thing. So, I remember I was visiting my aunt who was working in Leipzig, and she was working in a bakery. And there was this truck driver who at some point brought some stuff from West Germany. And there was this Hello Kitty thing where you put your pencils in; this kind of little pouch. And I remember loving it as a kid and it was, of course, something very special because hardly anyone had anything with Hello Kitty. It's one of those small, little things that I do remember, the appliances that didn't work properly, the fact that my aunt had to wait 15 years to get her Trabant, these kind of, paper-like cars. So little things like that.
AARON CAIN: Weimar I'd like to talk a little bit more about, if I could, because it's an extraordinary place. As you say, it's one of the most famous places in Germany. And it's a big focal point of the German enlightenment where Goethe and Schiller were. Franz Liszt made Weimar a music center. Kandinsky and Paul Klee and all these people, the Bauhaus movement. It really is this amazing place. And we're all shaped by where we come from, even if that shape is only formed by leaving where we come from. So how do you think growing up in Weimar might have shaped you and how you perceive the world, and how you approach your work?
ANN BARWICH: Oh, quite a lot. That's a good question because one thing with Weimer is its internal inconsistency and duality when it comes to the history. So, you can have the greatest moments of history. You mentioned Goethe, you mentioned Schiller. So, you have the, kind of, classic literature. You've got the music with Liszt. You've got, of course, Nietzsche in terms of philosophy. We had lots of things going on. We also had a certain feminist moment when the Duchess Anna Amalia - she brought in all these, kind of, famous writers to educate her son, Karl August. On the other hand, you have the worst of German history as well because you did have Buchenwald, the concentration camp, which was a concentration camp both during the Nazi period as well as also during, like, a working internment camp during East Germany. It was more or less hidden that it was also a second camp afterwards that people were lied to. No, no, no. This is just like a museum kind of things like - no, that was still kind of going on during East Germany, so you've got this internal inconsistency when it comes to the issues and values associated with Weimer, like the classic literature, the people thinking for themselves. And on the other hand, People falling for ideology so quickly. There's pictures of Hitler standing off the balcony of the Hotel Elephant addressing the Weimer people. And they were totally on board with him. Like, you can see people being thrilled. And one thing I remember actually was my father who was much older than my mother. And he was only a little child with his father on the marketplace when he was actually giving the speech. That was already when the Nazis were. So, my father was born in '36. But it was still like the Nazi time. He was giving a speech. And my father apparently later told me that he went to his father, my grandfather, and said, “why are people cheering this weird clownish man doing all these weird movements?” And, “he looks kind of funny.” And my grandfather’s like, “shh, shh. shh.” Because you couldn't say anything negative about it at the time. But my father wasn't having it. He was like, “this just looks weird,” but it's kind of strange to think how close that history still is. So, this is basically coming back to your question why I think Weimer shaped me because it makes you aware that can be the greatest and the worst moments of history combined in one place. And that shapes you because you become very aware of rhetorics. Rhetorical can be used for the most tremendous ways of getting people onboard with good ideas but also for the worst kinds of ideas. And having grown up in East Germany with a family that had negative experiences with the regime, what that leads to is a sensitivity to political rhetoric as well and also to, actually, jargon when it comes to academia. So this is how it influenced my work. One of the things I really try to avoid is to jump into jargon, because it's so easy. Academia and especially the humanities have become a bit too formalized for my taste, especially if you're a foreigner and you have to learn English. It's easier to write if you'd just jump into the formalization. But it's incredibly hard to find your own voice and to write in a way that's avoiding this kind of jumping into specific holes just to fit into a certain narrative or certain argument. So this is partly how it shaped me.
AARON CAIN: It sounds like in addition to rhetoric, it's probably pretty hard to get out of a childhood in Weimer without having some sort of immersion in philosophy.
ANN BARWICH: Yes, I gotta be honest. What I wanted to become when I was a child was a writer.
AARON CAIN: That's probably hard to avoid, as well.
ANN BARWICH: Yes and no. I didn't want to study literature theory. I thought, like, never ever going to do that. So, of course, what I did was study literature theory because this is how life is. You sometimes have a plan. You're like, “I'm going to do this. I'm going to do that.” And then for some reason life goes in a different direction. But I loved reading as a child, especially poetry. There's this one poem by Goethe and this one poem by Schiller. Like, this ballad, which shaped me quite a lot. The one by Goethe is the Erlkönig, which is about this father riding with his very sick son to get him help and the child dies at the end. So it was not necessarily a kind of fairy tale ending. The other thing is what really shaped my own approach to - well, you could say how to think for yourself was Schiller's Der Handschuh, so, “The Glove.” What this basically is about is you've got this knight who loves this woman, this princess, and he tries to impress her. And there's this big gathering of people around, it’s kind of a circus-like area. And you've got tigers. You've got bears. You've got everything. And she throws in the handkerchief. It's like, “if you love me you're going to get me that glove.” So he goes down. He finds all these animals. And it's very vivid when you've read it. And then he goes up to her and he throws the glove in her face like, “thank you, but no thank you.” And apparently Anna Amalia who invited Schiller to educate her son was like, “I don't like the ending.” So he had to change it. And after she died, he changed it back to the original.
AARON CAIN: So your book, Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind, it investigates several things. But one of the big ones is, as you put it, “how does the brain make sense of sense?” But before we get into what we know about the sense of smell now, could you walk us through some of the history of the study of olfaction? Because it has this long and difficult journey from antiquity all the way up to some pretty big breakthroughs of just the past couple of decades.
ANN BARWICH: There are, you could say, three ways to carve up that history. So, you've got basically ancient history up to the 20th century where people mainly, actually, looked at the materials from which smells emanate. Then you've got the 20th century, where chemistry was jumping in, and they're kind of modelling around that. And then you have 1991, which is the big breakthrough, with the discovery of the olfactory receptors. And many people are surprised how late that actually is. 1991 is 30 years ago. This is super recent. And since then, you can really say: this is when the modern scientific history of smell started. It was actually very difficult to organize all that knowledge, because there's hardly any proper scientific history of smell. We always look at culture, at certain forms of perfume and incense and aromas. But how do we study smell scientifically? How they've been looked at? But the problem with that is you don't have a traditional narrative. And that's why I said, like, there are these three stages in which I often tell the story. Because it's not just a story of materials, because you've got different kinds of materials. You've got people who associate with chemical particles or botanic materials or think of it as some kind of spiritual essence. There were so many conceptualizations of what matter gives rise to smells, and how to think of smells as representing or referring to something in the world. But there's also not a history of people in the classic sense. You don't have a school of thought.
AARON CAIN: There's no “Newtonian smell theory.” There is no “platonic smell.” They don't have that kind of association. That's a school, if you like, or a theory that stands the test of time for a while until something upends it.
ANN BARWICH: Precisely, you don't have specific people associated with, “this is like the theory of ‘X,’’ or some - or a “theory of ‘Y.’” Actually very famous people jumping into the topic and saying something very important. You have Linnaeus, of course, with the classification system. And one of the fascinating things is that smells must have driven him mental because Linnaeus is famous for having this universal classificatory system; this nested hierarchy by which you can arrange everything. I mean, he was classifying stones and rocks and plants and animals and even his colleagues. So everything was kind of made to fit. But smells didn't fit that. There he used a completely different system of opposites - so, five category and gradual opposites - where he correlated ways of life with plant materials as kind of a medicinal use. But it didn't look at all like the nested hierarchy where we've got genus and species. So, nobody really knows why he did smells differently, but they just defied his system, which is kind of cool. But he was the first one trying to classify smells, or smelling materials, in a more systematic sense. Previously people didn't try to do that so much. And then afterwards, people got into the classification rush. It was the gold rush. And you have, of course, Ramón y Cajal with the olfactory system, looking at the neural structure at the anatomy. So, you have famous people having engaged with it and having contributed quite a lot. But it was not like Newtonian physics, or something like that. And you also don't have a history of the instrument. Like, some scientific histories are shaped by specific kind of instrument. Also not the case. So this is what I found so difficult, because you also have this historical overlap. You couldn't even do a simple chronology. Organizing that material was quite hard because how do you introduce a linear narrative to something that is like a mosaic?
AARON CAIN: Well, yet it's so appropriate to something like smell, which is, by its very nature, if you'll forgive me for saying so, kind of diffuse. Let's talk about that breakthrough in 1991. Let's get to Linda Buck and Richard Axel.
ANN BARWICH: I got obsessed with that discovery. So one thing is that Linda Buck - so she did the experimental work. And it's beautiful if you look at how she did it, because she worked for three years to find these receptor genes. And three years is actually quite long for a postdoc. So she was a postdoc at the time and she was already a senior postdoc and it was either the Nobel Prize or, like, obscurity for her. Now, nobody goes into smell like, “I want the Nobel Prize,” or in terms of, “I want to cure cancer or Alzheimer's.” It's something people get into because for some reason or the other, they are obsessed with the topic. And she was one of them. And she found them. She really just wanted to find these genes. It's quite fascinating how she did. But it was unusual, because you could really say there's hardly any discovery that's changed the narrative, the perspective of a field as much as this discovery did. Because previously people thought olfaction was this niche subject, this little quirky system that worked a little bit different than other systems. And it was hard to model, yet somehow molecular, but it's just this side system. They discovered these genes and suddenly turned almost overnight from being this eccentric footnote in the history of science into a modern model system for thinking about neurobiology, the mechanisms in neurobiology, sensory transduction – so, how a signal is basically being propagated and implemented. And why that is is because previously - prior to Linda and Richard's discovery - prior to that, people thought, okay, it must be a pretty big system because you have so many different chemicals. So, possibly, there are about, like, let's say maybe 30 to 50 receptors. That was the estimation. Maybe even 100. So, if you go up your nasal cavity, if you were zooming in as if you're kind of a small person, you have this mucus on the top of your nose. And some people don't like the word mucus, but it's just what it is. And you've got the sensory nerves in there. This is – basically in these sensory nerves. In this sensor neurons, you've got situated the olfactory receptors. So, what turned out actually after that discovery is that we actually don't have, like, maybe 30 to 50 of these types. But in humans, we have 400. In mice, we have 1,000. In elephants, by the way, 2,000. So that's massive, because the biggest protein gene family at that time were serotonin with, like, 12 members. So that's like a big difference actually. So, this is like a massive system and it's genetically highly diverse. It's one of the most diverse genetic systems in the mammalian genome. It's also the largest multigene family in the genome. So suddenly it goes, like, from this quirky system to, “this is like a genetic goldmine.”
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AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. I'm speaking with Ann Barwich, author of the book Smellosophy: What The Nose Tells The Mind.
What is it about smell? What is it that drew you in? I'm picturing you, like, an old Warner Brothers cartoon of you wafting along by the scent of a pie, or something. But what is it about the study of olfaction that captivated you and compelled you to make it the focus of your work? Because didn't smell kind of pull you away from a half-completed PhD in another field.
ANN BARWICH: (Laughter) Yes. It was pure accident. It was the best accident of my life so far, which tells me a lot about how research works. It's often the “Ha! That's weird” that pulls you in. And that's precisely what happened. So, I started, actually, with a different topic. I wanted to look at the notion of individuals and organisms and how to think about biological individuals. Like, in comparison with, for instance, multicellular entities…then organism, species, like, how do you separate them, especially if you’ve got, like, weird things such as certain fungi which are both communities as well as individuals? So there’s, uh, some interesting conceptual work to be done here. And I wanted to look at it by rethinking the notion of individuals; going from this kind of set theoretic account – like you've got a set of properties or criteria - towards something which is more processional, something more like a sequence and developmental which was actually an idea I got from Leibnitz, one of my favorite German philosophers, who actually looked at the notion of functional individuals basically from mathematics back into biology, back into mathematics. And at that time there was this professor - he still is - who apparently wrote a book on Leibnitz. I was like, “are you kidding me? I'm not writing a second-hand thesis to somebody else's book.” So, I was kind of sitting there. And usually people have a crisis in their dissertation at the end. I had it right at the start because I couldn't answer a very simple question: “So what?” Honestly it was just a conceptual exercise. The thing is, of course, that I picked an even larger topic now with smell. Because it doesn't seem so big but it actually is bigger than the question I had with my original PhD. But at some point I was – like, I had this crisis. I was like, “OK.” I wanted to change the topic. I was just also not so excited about it anymore. And I was reading around. I was reading Umberto Eco - about representation, semiotics - and got obsessed with that. And, at some point, I saw this talk about smells. I was like, “ha, I have no idea how we smell, why not?” I mean, it was just like the year of trying to figure out what I'm going to do with my life and my interests. And this talk fascinated me because I realized I have no idea about how we smell, but neither do many others. There are so many open questions, and I thought, “well, it can't be that difficult, can it?” And that led me down the rabbit hole. And I realized: when you see the history of science - I love stories in the history of science - and you always wonder how must have been to be at the forefront of science, to actually be there when the big discoveries are being made, only to realize that's precisely where we are with smell right now. You can go live stream into scientific history, and I wanted to understand more like how it does actually science at the frontiers look like when we think about science when we describe science. We often do it from the perspective of closed histories or closed case studies. So, things we already know how they end, such as Newton, such as Darwin, et cetera, where the story is kind of closed – there’s still, of course, stuff going on. But the answer is not, like, in the middle of finding out. And smell, there were lots of things moving and shifting and going in different directions that I thought, “that's interesting.” And I started out more with a history of the scientific field. But as it is with science, the question changed. And I realized lots of these questions being pulled in different directions are deeply philosophical in nature. They are philosophical questions. So, this is one of those rare and beautiful opportunities where you can really have philosophy in practice in scientific practice. You can actually integrate. You can really do interdisciplinary research that is more than just being mediocre in two fields. But you can really synthesize in terms of, “what's the next step? What's the missing knowledge? What kind of questions can we ask,” and to integrate both scientific and philosophical thinking. And that's what pulled me in. You have to rethink your philosophical intuitions. We have so many intuitions we inherited from intellectual history about how the mind works, how the senses are going to work and represent the world, et cetera. And smell is not so easy to think about because it defies some of our traditional notions when it comes to the object of perception. You said diffused, for instance. That's precisely it. We don't have clear-cut boundaries. Like, with objects, we have certain descriptions that don't fit. Like the orientation of the smell doesn't make any sense, but it makes sense with vision, of course. Or what about hallucinations, illusions? What would be a smell illusion? Is it really the same? Is it not? Do we just apply these concepts and then make the data fit? And quite often you realize that smell forces you to rethink how we describe it and then you can use these insights to reflect them back onto vision.
AARON CAIN: You raised this question in your book ,so I feel safe in asking it of you now: as we learn more about how to measure how smell interacts with the brain and how it affects the brain, we're being forced to kind of take a step back and ask ourselves, “OK, so just what is it that we're measuring in the first place?” So, what is an odor?
ANN BARWICH: I'll give you the typical philosophical answer. It basically depends who's asking and what you want to know. Because the really cool thing with smell, and what makes it so challenging in describing it is that, well, you can describe it if you ask - and this is what I try to also convey with a book - If you ask a chemist, a chemist will give you an entirely different answer than a perfumer would, than a biologist would, than a philosopher would. But all of these different perspectives have something that is true about smell. Smells are conveyed and communicated by the chemical environment. They are a representation of the changing chemical environment, but also in relation to your body. So, this is where you step from chemistry to biology. It is something that is always measured or perceived in relation to your body, to your own physiology, to your hormonal state, to whether you're hungry or not, to whether you're tense or tired or whatever mood you're in, to what extent you might be already ill or sick or something like that. But it's also, then, the cognitive dimension. Like, to what extent do you use smells to, for instance, enjoy something, or to memorize something, or to describe something, as well as the philosophical dimension of consciousness. Because one of the nice things about consciousness is that smells are kind of borderline. They're in and out. They're in and out. They're fleeting. They’re coming into your consciousness. They're hard to monitor the whole time. Again, biological reasons as well. And then you've got the perfumer says, “that's all very nice, but we haven't even talked about the refinement of aesthetic pleasure that certain things like perfumes can give you, also wines can give you. There's a question of balance and harmony as well and of a certain form of joy.” So there's dimensions to it that all are true and all describe a facet of smell. And I think the answer can only be found by integrating all these different perspectives. Smell is not just chemistry, because that's just like saying literature is just words. There's something to understand through the biology and through the mind and through the cognition. And this is where it's important to have both the biology and neuroscience as well as perfumery. These are the guys and women who basically work with these materials, who know the perceptual dimensions, while the neuroscientists have a wonderful insight into the circuitry, which might tell us why these perceptual effects are actually not just something in your mind, but they are a result of how the material is organized. People often thought “yeah, you know, but it's just in the head, it's something emergent, it's something subjective.” No! It's actually how the system is organized and wired. These are spurious effects. These are hardcore causal mechanisms. Like genetics, for instance. But also the circuitry, where you trace that down. And that tells us about how we perceive and how we interact with the world.
AARON CAIN: In terms of the actual physiological goings on when we smell an odor, the big revelation to me, learning about smell, was that we all know that it is linked up with the sense of taste. But when it comes to the molecular level, when we are smelling something, we are tasting it. The same molecules that would be entering our body if we were tasting something, are triggering these receptors inside the nose. So, if you could, shrink us down and sort of walk us through, what's happening when an odor comes into the nose into the body and makes its way into the brain and somehow gets interpreted. What do we know right now about how that all works?
ANN BARWICH: I have to do two answers because you mentioned, on the one hand, how it works and on the other hand, smell and, what you say, “well, most of taste seems to be smell.” So let me start actually with that. Because the thing is, we don't have one sense of smell. We actually have two. So we've got what's called orthonasal olfaction, which is sniffing, the inhaling, what we usually associate with smell, but also retronasal smell, which is mouth breathing. So, this is basic when you chew, when you eat, when you have food. The aroma molecules are released from your food and they travel through the back of your throat. There's the pharynx, which is this kind of opening up to your nose. It's being pushed with the air coming from your lungs up to the epithelium, like in the top of your nose. And that is sensation of flavor. Because if you think of it as the five basic tastes. Well, I say basic because there is also debate about were there fat receptors on your tongue, where the fat is a sixth taste? And also, kind of, metallic. So we've got sweet, sour, bitter, umami. Umami is this kind of meaty…
AARON CAIN: Does umami officially make the grade? Because as I heard it was a new entry.
ANN BARWICH: There was a long discussion about, “is umami really a taste?” And there has also been interesting cultural studies showing how this skepticism of umami was also kind of a cultural bias, because it was mainly coming from the Eastern cuisine. By now it's accepted that umami is like the fifth taste. And then you've got now also a couple of years ago the discovery of fat receptors. And there were some interesting discussions to what extent fat is a taste or not. You have the receptors, but can you separate it as an individual modality compared to salty and bitter? So there are interesting conceptual workings going on. And one of the reasons why I think that philosophers should learn more science and should engage with these kinds of developments is: they have philosophical questions. How do you separate different modalities within a sense? So, these are the two senses you have. With retronasal olfaction, you also have lots of cross-modal integration. On your tongue you've got touch, you've got taste, as well. Then audition and vision plays a big role as well in how you perceive a flavor. Olfaction in terms of when you have the inhaling and the mouth breathing smell. These two smells, they're not exactly identical. There are certain things being different. So if you've got, for instance, coffee. Great orthonasal smell, bit of a more disappointing retronasal smell, because you mainly have it overpowered by taste, namely the bitter. Nobody says, “wake up to the taste of coffee.” It's always the smell of coffee. I mean, let's be honest. I find coffee smells great but it tastes a bit disappointing. But you've got the opposite with cheese. So some cheeses, they stink. They stink like somebody didn't wash their feet for several weeks. Most of us enjoy these kinds of cheeses. So people might not because the retro smell is not quite the same as the orthonasal one. And one of the reasons is that with the air from your lungs you've got a different airflow. It's also warm air. So there's the airflow dynamic. Which molecules hit your receptors first. Like, these receptors in the epithelium. So even though it's the same broad the terms of the same interaction, this interaction triggers a signal that then goes to the first part of your brain. So how does the brain know what it actually smells? If you've got one molecule interacting with, say, 10 receptors by different features and we never smell single molecules but coffee's actually 800 different compounds that create this kind of coffee smell. So, how does the brain figure out what the hell is going on in the epithelium? And these are where the cool engineering tricks comes in. Because every sensory neuron expresses only one receptor type. Each odor has a fingerprint like a specific pattern, spatially organized. And you think, “oh, wonderful. This is organized. This makes sense.” And then suddenly goes into the cortex and it goes in all directions. Like, this beautiful order suddenly is discarded and it becomes this fanning out, this mosaic of a signal. So you wonder what - hang on a second. How does the brain - why does it, A, abandon this kind of beautiful order and, B, what does that mean? Like, what does that mean in terms of what the signal represents, how, we might say, what smell has, what kind of neural space on neuro representation? This is where we're coming to the open questions more and more. Like, how does the brain make sense of smell?
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AARON CAIN: Ann Barwich, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science and the History and Philosophy of Science and author of Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU.
You've called smell the Cinderella of the senses because it's been, if not dismissed, certainly played down in importance, especially next to vision. Because if smell is Cinderella, then sight is the prince. One reason, it seems to me, is that there is a general feeling that the better developed an animal’s sense of smell is, the lower, the less advanced or noble they are. You can't find many creatures, for example, that have a bigger olfactory bulb than a turkey vulture. And dogs, as good as their sense of smell is, they seem to be quite fond of the odor of some pretty icky stuff.
ANN BARWICH: Oh, yes. I should at least do an acknowledgment first, because the Cinderella of the census was something I heard Aina Puce, who's at Bloomington. I would like to kind of do a shout out to her because she originally mentioned like, “yeah, it's kind of like the Cinderella of the senses.” Like, it is! But if we think about the way we talk about smell and the animal kingdom, there's an interesting bias indeed. This is one of the reasons why smell was neglected for so long, because it seems to be this brutish sensation. This instinctive sense which animals are so fond of but we as human beings and our cognition and our reasons like, “OK, fine.” I've got a good reason of why we should take it a bit more seriously in terms of our nature, often decision making through the senses. But one of the things that I often hear is, again, “but other animals are so good at smelling and we're not.” Often you hear people saying, “Yeah, dogs, for instance, they're fantastic at smelling and they've got so many receptors also in their nose. I mean, dogs have over 800, they have close to 900 receptors. And we humans have only about 400. So therefore dogs are better at smelling.” No. This is one of the reasons why I say it's good to go into the details of science to also address the question of what does that mean. Of course, dogs have more receptors because if you look at the snout of a dog, it's super intricate. They've got this kind of - almost like a tunnel in different directions. So, the long dog snout is basic filtering out lots of harmful chemicals. But in order to still be able to smell something, they have to have more receptors. We're bipedals. We're hardly having our noses on the ground. We don't need that many receptors to filter out potential contaminants. It's more related to the behavior, the physiology and what it's for. It's not necessarily that they are better at smelling just because they have more receptors. You might say, “well, but they still are better.” Well, it's similar with mice. They have 1,000. Same thing: noses on the ground, filtering out the contaminants. And there was a good study showing that, well, if you actually lesion a large amount of the olfactory bulb, where all these kind of signals from the receptors are collected. The behavior doesn't change. There's a redundancy built into the system precisely for the fact that - what does it have to counter, such as, for instance, potential harmful substances, potential loss of receptors, et cetera. So it's not just, “oh, yeah, more numbers, therefore better.” This is a very simplistic thinking, and smell is, again, a good sense to challenge this kind of thinking. What does genetics really mean? What does it mean in relation to behavior and physiology? This is one of the things why I think looking at these kind of details is interesting, also in combination with other animals. Because we often think, “yeah, but with animals, they rely more on smell. Like, it's more important to their behavior. And humans not so much.” Not true. It's just that we're not always consciously aware of smells and how they influence our behavior. But this is why I say, like, the - why we should take smell more seriously with decision making in humans. We like to think our romantic partners, we choose them because we're romantically attracted because they're witty. They're smart. They're the love of our life. Because they’re some soulmate, or whatever. All these kind of beautiful notions. It's also their smell. I mean, not just in terms of you meet somebody at the bar. If their smell is off, they can be the most beautiful person in the world. Let's say you meet Charlize Theron, and she would smell off, the deal would be off. Even somebody as beautiful as Charlize Theron. If the smell is off, it doesn't work. By the way, apologies to Charlize Theron. I think she she's possibly smelling great. but as an example. And also there was a study showing that, actually, women can smell the most minute genetic differences. Here’s the compatibility complex. So, the linkto the immune system that – women, when they were smelling t-shirts with body odor of men, were attracted to men with a complementary immune system. Now the interesting thing comes if these women were on a contraceptive routine, like a hormonal change with the pill, they preferred the body odor of men with a similar immune system. So, this is kind of interesting to see how attraction is really also linked to this kind of subconscious signal of smell. And now you might even think, “well, hang on a second how does that play into divorce rate?” When do most people get divorced? Right after marriage when they're changing contraceptive routine and try to potentially start a family. So the love of your life might really lose sex appeal, or some parts of sex appeal, when they change the contraceptive routine.
AARON CAIN: In the course of your research into olfaction and, really, in your work as a whole, cognitive scientist, empirical philosopher, historian of science, investigator of the senses, I'm wondering, do you ever have trouble sorting out objectivity versus subjectivity? Because, anymore, I only seem to hear subjectivity invoked as a defense. Like, “well, that's subjective.” It seems to be kind of the fancy way of ending a conversation by saying, “OK, whatever.” The way I learned it is that anything objective sticks to the facts and anything subjective has feelings. And smell is at least perceived to be so malleable and so susceptible to influence. And it can greatly influence other senses. And here we are trying to take objective measure of how it all works. So how do you and the many scientists who you interviewed for your book, how do you keep it all straight between objectivity and subjectivity?
ANN BARWICH: Oh, you're playing into my greatest rants. So I got very frustrated with so many people saying, “Yeah, but isn't smell just subjective?” You smell A. I smell B. We're experiencing the same thing differently, and sometimes also we ourselves. Like, depending on when we smell something, the same smell to us as individuals can also be different. So this was one of the reasons why it was often rejected from science, philosophy, because it was this kind of weird subjective sensation and didn't seem to have much objective grounds and reality and mechanisms and how does that work. I think this is a misunderstanding, and this is where the visual centric, the visual bias comes in, because we have a very specific understanding of what objectivity is and subjectivity in perception that we adopted from an actually pre-scientific idea of vision. So, this is when I'm often bashing the visual system out of fun. And I've got visual scientists going like, “well, it's a bit more complicated than that.” And yeah, I know, but imagine how complex olfaction then is in comparison to vision, and how much we're still relying on pre-scientific notions also of vision to still study vision, also scientifically, but also olfaction. What’s objective is that we are all seeing the same thing from different angles. So we can agree that this is the same thing, we find the same descriptors. That's not possible with smell. The same molecule can be described by different people in different ways. It seems to have different qualities, also, depending on how and when we're encountering and the context. What people often forget here is that there's a difference between variation and subjectivity. Subjectivity means that it's really, just, it doesn't have any causal grounds that are linked to the objective materiality of the world. So that there is no link by which you could describe it as a generalization. But with smell you can. Lots of these variations have biological causes and mechanisms behind them. As an example, one of my favorite examples is cilantro or coriander. When you have, for instance - you prepare a meal, you invite some people over, well you often have like one person goes, like, “I don't like cilantro. It's kind of soapy. It's, ugh, it’s disgusting. It's pungent. It's not this kind of fresh - what you perceive.” And people are like, “see? This is why smell is so kind of quirky and weird.” No! They have a mutation. A genetic mutation near one of the olfactory receptor genes. There are many of these kinds of examples where genetic differences - I mentioned to you before, this is one of the most genetically diverse systems. Small genetic differences lead to differences in perception. Again, scientific studies were showing this more and more in recent years. So there is an actual causal basis - genetics. There's also the question of to what extent experience as something that is basically processed and encoded in our brains also affects how we interpret things. And it also shows us something about what we're interpreting. So, my favorite example is the parmesan/vomit one. I mention it quite often because it's so vivid and it's just a brilliant way to illustrate what this is about.
AARON CAIN: You talked about this in your book. The one vial that's labeled “parmesan” and the one that's labeled “vomit.”
ANN BARWICH: Precisely. So I give you two bottles. They're actually identical. Same color, same liquids, the same substance in there: Isobutyric acid. And the participants didn't know that but they were adamant: they smell differently. These were different odors coming from these substances. And people are like, “see? This is why subjective. Because people are fooled by the labels.” No! Because both parmesan and vomit have this compound as part of their mixture. So, many chemicals occur in different contexts, so they’re often in different clouds. So, I mentioned coffee before three percent of coffee is actually indole. And indole has a strong fecal sense. It's also in Jasmine, by the way. A certain percentage of Jasmine smell is also fecal. When it's kind of more ripe than you can smell it. But your brain still can measure the difference. So, there was a study showing that if I give you a synthetic Jasmine smell and I give you one with the kind of contaminant with indole, people can tell the difference. You can actually study these things, showing that certain forms of variation have the causal ground. The same molecule can be in different contexts and it means different things behaviorally. The parmesan/vomit example - you've got, basically, food versus contaminant. So, this is already why it means something different for the organism perceiving it. It's also in context, because it's not that you're just smelling the single molecule. You're always smelling mixtures. So what a chemical means is always determined by the chemical environment in relation to your body. And this is not something subjective. This is something that is tailored to your body. It's physiological. It's evolutionary, prime. So there are many explanations involved in that that are scientific that are objective. It's just that the expression looks to us subjective because it's highly variable. But that's just like this pre-scientific understanding of, “yeah, because in vision we see the same thing.” Not true. There are lots of visual illusions. We can fool the mind into different perceptions as well. And I don't think this is the case of, “ha! See, we tricked our sensory system.” It's an indicator of how the sensory system works.
AARON CAIN: I want to see if we can go a little further down this particular rabbit hole, because a few of the chapters in your book go into detail about one of your big assertions: that the sense of smell doesn't really fit into the theories of how perception works. For example, that some of the ways that our perceptions vary from person to person is incompatible with the objectivity of perception. Now I confess, to me that kind of sounds like you're saying something like, “don't worry, subjectivity doesn't really interfere with objectivity.” So am I interpreting that terribly poorly? I want to see if we can travel further down this line of what we can learn about objectivity and subjectivity from olfaction.
ANN BARWICH: I would push the angle further because I noticed that a lot of people think what I'm saying is, “oh, it's just context and subjectivity and we should study smell through that.” That's actually not what I'm pushing. I'm pushing actually to rethink what we say makes something objective. And it's not the relation between, or, the physical structure of the world and our mental representation of it which is still a very strong view coming from vision also in philosophy but also in science. I say what makes something objective is the mechanism by which this link is created. Is it a certain regularity? Is it a certain causal regularity and rule by which a certain link is being established? And that link might be variable in terms of input/output, but is it the same mechanism that grants this kind of variation to different organisms or different individuals? So, instead of studying something through subjectivity it's more like, well, what makes something objective is what creates something. It's the biological process we should be studying. It's not the chemistry and then the mental representation in the case of smell. It's the biology that provides the grounds to say something is objective. I think some philosophers might have an issue with the way I'm describing that because they’re saying, “well that kind of conflates the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity.” Yes, because I think it's a misconception. It's a false duality, quite often. We're building it and it's easy, perhaps, to categorize things. But I think it underestimates what's really going on. We're missing the real explanations here and I’m much more interested in how things work rather than how we can classify things.
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AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is Ann Barwich, author of the book Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind.
Another area of research that you explore in Smellosophy, in your book, but in general is the social factors that define science, and the ongoing study and development of science. I'd love it if you could speak to that a bit because it seems that science, by its nature, tries so hard to isolate itself from social influence. And yet social influences seem inescapable, perhaps more so now these days. I'd love to hear about that aspect of your work, the ways of exploring and determining some of the social factors that are defining the development of science.
ANN BARWICH: I love that question for so many reasons, because this is something that started me off when I got into the field and that changed a lot while being in the field. So, you say science tries to isolate itself from social factors. The interesting thing is that philosophers, sociologists and historians of science have been very adamant over - especially since the 1970s and 80s, to study precisely these factors. And a couple of very interesting analysis of science has been produced in these decades. But both missed something. That's the interesting part. So, I noticed a lot of scientists are more and more aware of these social factors. But there's still something missing also for them. There's something that's - how you describe science and how you do science is not lining up. And, on the other hand, I think, also, Sociologists and philosophers and historians are kind of lacking certain things, which is partly the insight into the practice because it's not just social. And one of the things that's being ignored on both sides for some reason is the individual perspective. We’re often thinking, “well, individuals in science are replaceable because it's about the objective explanations.” And that's how many scientist kind of like to see it: yeah, at some point this would have been discovered by someone else, so the individual is just, like the nice narrative element but not important to understanding the practice. I don't think this is true.
AARON CAIN: It's like the car doesn't change, just the driver does. The driver gets back in and drives the same car.
ANN BARWICH: Yeah. And what’s forgotten here is that it's not about the car but about the journey. Science is much more defined by the journey, how questions are developed, how questions are propagated and not what facts are accumulated because the facts are just the ladder. It's like the ladder you used to get to the next step. There was, I think, once this question to one of the former editors of Nature, like, “how many papers in Nature have been proven wrong?” It's, like, “well, all of them That's the point of science.” You actually move on. You're investigating more and more. And this is not, “oh, yeah, science is fallible, and, see, we don't know what we're doing.” No. It's actually that you're enhancing your understanding. You're creating knowledge on the basis of knowledge and you’re expanding your perspective, you’re creating new questions and that's why individual facts at some point might be replaceable by a better understanding. It's a much more organic process. So this is where the individual is important, because the drivers get us into certain directions. They impose a certain perspective. They mentor other people, they provide integration of perspectives. I think there's much more to be said about the individual. And it's not the genius myth. It's not like, “oh, this person had all the answers and had such a great idea.” It's much more about the personality of certain people to go for certain questions while others do not. And olfaction for me was a good example. Because hardly anyone goes into olfaction because they expect, like, the next Nobel Prize. Linda Buck and Richard Axel got one, but that wasn't expected. This is a field where you have all the most interesting misfits you could imagine, because you've got people coming in from biology in terms of computational biology, behavioral biology. You've got some people from molecular biology. You've got the neuroscientists who go into circuits. You've got the chemists who do, like, hardcore chemistry. You've got the psychologists. You've got even some people coming from physics, even some who came from quantum physics. And all of these people have different characters. Olfaction’s one of the most diverse field when it comes to characters because there is no school of thought in the same sense. People come from different angles and that makes the field highly dynamic, but it also explains a lot of ways in which the field has developed. So, if you want to understand why certain questions were pursued for a certain time, sure, they're the social factors. What was funded at a certain time? Also what fields were more dominant – there are historical factors in terms of what has been successful so far. But there's also the individual part. What got people hooked? How did people end up being in the field? Who did it? And this is also what I think philosophers often underestimated, because it explains for instance how certain groups form or certain interests form. It's not just the social level. And many philosophers and sociologists like to emphasize the plurality of science, which I showed is the case with olfaction. But the plurality is not just that there are different social parts going on with funding and disciplines and technology and objectives, but the plurality is also on a personal level. Every person has a different history. Some people might come from immunology to a neuroscience lab. Or some people might come from chemistry to psychology. And they might have a different background in terms of: were they raised in a house? There was, for instance, working class and doing lots of puzzles and mechanics. Or do they come from a family that did lots of art history? These are all perspectives that merge on an individual level that I think help us to understand why certain questions were developed by certain people at a time. And it's not the genius myth, but it explains a lot of what I find most fascinating about science. It is a very personal endeavor. You do it because you want to understand something. But that has a personal note. And of course you end up with explanations that could have been developed and discovered by other people. But when it comes to figuring out how we get there, there's an interesting element: trying to figure out how we understand the world to end up with these objective explanations.
AARON CAIN: You're making a big part of your career this integration of philosophy and science. And there were times in history when they were so similar that you couldn't really have different words for philosophy and science. We no longer live in those times. But for you, how are philosophy and science getting along right now? Do you encounter resistance from colleagues and mentors? Do you encounter eagerness to let them commingle?
ANN BARWICH: You’re basic tapping into why existential crisis as, “what am I?” I love that question so much because if you don't mind me going off on a tangent, this is, like, capturing so many things. On the one hand I had a crisis of “what am I?” Because I came from philosophy, I came from philosophy of science in particular, into the lab of Stuart Firestein, whom I owe a lot to. And he's also a bit unusual because he was originally a theatre director before he went to neuroscience before he then later developed an interest in history philosophy of science. He's one of the most versatile minds and brilliant minds I've ever met, but he already is like an unusual scientist in that sense. He did his PhD when he was, like, 40. And he’s now one of the leading neuroscience experts. Like, he's incredibly smart. But he picked up that I was kind of trying to do something. In a way, I think it sounds harsh, but I came to the lab and I realized philosophy of science had failed. All the ways in which we're describing science, I couldn't merge it together with what was actually happening in the lab. We like this great model, model choice and these abstract dimensions about justification, what's a good model, prediction et cetera. And then in the lab when you figure out it's A, much messier. And there are certain things that are not captured. That are much more in terms of the open questions, the ignorance in a positive sense, the question propagation, the way scientists do decisions which is not on this abstract level but it's much more bound to materials and instruments. So, this is what captured my interest: to figure out how to think like a scientist to link it back to what did we miss in philosophy of science in this kind of meta perspective? And what I encountered is that the scientists were much more supportive than the philosophers. The scientists actually loved what I was doing. They immediately figured out what the philosophical perspective is. They're like, “this is a very interesting philosophical perspective. I haven't seen it like that,” or “let's discuss this more.” I had wonderful philosophical discussions about both how science proceeds as well as how smell is, how the brain works, how the mind works, with the scientists. Some of the people in the book, for instance: Terry Acree. We had a long discussion about the notion of qualia, and whether there is such a thing as subjective experience and how to study it scientifically. And I had lots of pushback from the philosophers who at some point found, “what are you doing? That's not philosophy anymore.” Like, “is that still philosophy? How is that still philosophy?” Both from philosophers of mind as well as philosophers of science who found what I was doing was going native. Like, “you're doing scientific work. That's not philosophy of science.” No. I think it actually is. And it took me years and years to figure out how to explain that this is still philosophy and what that means. And one of the reasons is that philosophy and philosophy of science has become, in my mind, too institutionalized. It's kind of like the lure and the temptation of scholasticism. And there are some philosophers of science, philosophers of mind who also say the same thing. Also very famous ones like Philip Kitcher, who is one of the key philosophers of science. And he wrote something where it's like the problem with philosophy is you start with an ordinary concept A . Then the next philosopher comes like, “I define it like this.” And at some point you end up in this intellectual contest of how to define a concept among, like, three or four different people that is so far removed from where the concept originated and how it was used. That's what often happens in philosophy science when it comes to the notion of mechanism - key concept. for instance, in science both in physics as well as biology but also in chemistry. So you've got the notion of mechanism to explain some things, to delineate certain elements. But in philosophy by now it's about, “oh, I define mechanism by philosopher A in contrast with philosopher C to show that B was actually the better choice.” Like, who cares? How many notions of mechanism do you really have to define according to individual people who at some point were just sitting in their armchair? I'm not interested in that. And that for me is not philosophy. And I think many people find what I say a little bit inflammatory, and are like, “yeah, you're a bit unfair and uncharitable.” Fair enough. But I do think why I'm saying that is because I think there's a much greater promise for philosophers to do in tandem with the sciences. And that's not being a handmaiden to science, that's actually being a collaborator; to understand the science, to identify how can we go from here. And I think this is what philosophers, if they understand the science, can do. And that also - that many scientists actually appreciate. Because it's not that scientist can't do that. It's also a matter of time and resources. If you are in a lab it's highly time consuming to learn the procedure, to do the data analysis. And you're already in a lab doing lots of collaboration. You've got somebody who's more responsible for the statistics or somebody who's more responsible for the experimental protocol et cetera, et cetera. Why not have a philosopher who is actually looking at this from a conceptual perspective in contribution? There is so much I find can be done. But, so far, I've got more pushback from philosophers than scientists. And what I often say is, well, if you actually look at my career trajectory, I almost quit academia because I couldn't get a job. Because all the philosophers were like, “yeah, but that's not what we want.” And so far I've always been either at interdisciplinary programs or institutions, or at science programs. But I've never been employed by a philosophy department. I think that’s speaking volumes.
AARON CAIN: Well, I feel a little bit badly about forcing you to go through one of your existential crises. For a final question I want to see if we can help you with the rest of the way out of it. What do you believe is possible when you choose to devote yourself to the philosophy of science instead of to philosophy or science?
ANN BARWICH: I think the best scientists and philosophers were both. You got to find something you want to understand. And that naturally brings integration of different disciplines. You have to. Because you're not interested in a certain discourse, you're interested in understanding a certain problem. And then you want to get as many different kinds of tools and perspectives and techniques to investigate that as possible. That's not just me. If you think of famous people like Hannah Arendt, who is not a scientist, but she often described herself as a political scientist, political theorist. And she integrated political theory with history and with philosophy, because she was interested in understanding a notion such as totalitarianism. And for that you can't just do philosophy and can't just do political theory. You have to find different tools. You want to understand. You don't want to just have a discourse and impose a certain framework. This is perhaps where both scientists and philosophers benefit from this kind of integration, because you're not just defending frameworks. You're trying to understand a problem. You're trying to understand what the question means to address that problem. That's how research works. And back to what you were saying - the notion of scientists and philosophers used to be an integrated concept. And that's what I'm trying to do, to bring back natural philosophy into form for the 21st century. The good thing is I'm not alone with that. And some of the people were doing this way, way before I was doing this. So there is, of course, famously, Patricia and Paul Churchland, who were precisely doing a similar way of rethinking philosophical concepts through advances in neuroscience. And they were one of the first people to figure out we need to rethink what we're doing here. And we need to be in a much more collaborative environment. And that might allow us to actually advance with the science, for the science, and also for philosophy. My favorite example is Paul Churchland’s neuro computation because he was already on board with connectionism before it was popular. There's so much ahead of their time stuff going on. They're not the only ones. I want to do something like that. But I wanted to go one step further. This is why I wanted to become experimental myself. Some of these theoretical questions we are developing through this integrated perspective, they're testable. How can we make them testable? How is it more than just a intellectual speculation? And this is where, again, I had lots of support from the scientists. It was a conversation with Gordon Shepherd, who's one of the key figures in olfactory neuroscience. He was one of the first people actually studying the olfactory brain and really advancing the field, also incredibly nice man, by the way, and very supportive. And at some point I had several conversations with him because I wanted to interview him for my book. And there were some questions open. I was like, “yeah, I would like to have one more interview.” There were some questions. Gordon wasn't having it in the best way. He's saw a talk of mine at the 2018 AChemS; the American Association for Chemoreception Sciences. He said, like, “let's have breakfast. I saw talk of yours,” the same symposium, and he said, “well, this is very interdisciplinary.” And his daughter's also very interdisciplinary, doing English literature and communication, media studies. So he knows how difficult it is to be interdisciplinary and he’s like, “well, philosophers don't seem to resonate well with your concepts. Have you thought of going experimental?” So, he used this breakfast to coach me into how to think about, if you want to do this, if you think that these philosophical questions can be tested, how would you go about that? What instrument would you choose? How to think, also, career wise. He was mentoring me in a way that was amazing. And to have somebody as fantastic as Gordon have this confidence that you can learn this, you can do this, it's not too late. You can integrate this. I think this is an idea worth exploring, was fantastic. And then I landed in Bloomington, Indiana at the Cognitive Sciences Department, where, at some point, Peter Todd, the director here, of course, went like, “well, what would you need to test this idea? How much would that cost?” They were taking this idea seriously. And now it's basically in the development. Buildings being reconstructed. And I'm thrilled, excited and I'm walking on very brittle ground, here. I know that. It's like you're forcing yourself to be uncomfortable with your own knowledge and ignorance at the same time, because, of course, you know, I know this. There are lots of things I have underestimated. I don't know yet. I know I'm learning as I'm going. And it's a lot of work. But this is something which was inspired by the Churchland. It was inspired by Gordon. I have the right environment here to do this. And I think lots of other people can do this. It's just we need to find a better way to create an infrastructure for both scientists and philosophers.
AARON CAIN: Ann Barwich, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
ANN BARWICH: Well, thank you very much for having me.
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AARON CAIN: Ann Barwich, author of Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind. Ann Barwich is an assistant professor of cognitive science and the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University in Bloomington. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.
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