Smelling and Naming!

A friend just emailed an article on research done at the MaxPlank Institute on Odor/Scent Identification, which of course, automatically reminds me of how it relates to wine:

Drs. Majid and Burenhult examined how well a hunter-gatherer culture from the Jahai of the Malay Peninsula could name smells and colors compared to an English speaking group. 

The Jahai speakers have "abstract" vocabulary for smells. A few examples are listed below :

  • "crŋir" = to smell roasted
  • haʔɛ̃t = ‘to stink’ e.g., ***, rotten meat, prawn paste
  • plʔεŋ = ‘to have a bloody smell which attracts tigers’ e.g., crushed head lice, squirrel blood
  • cŋəs = ‘to smell edible, tasty’ e.g., cooked food, sweets
  • harɨm = ‘to be fragrant’ e.g., various species of flowers, perfumes, soap 

SOURCE: Asifa Majid, Niclas Burenhult. Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language.Cognition, 2014; 130 (2): 266 DOI:10.1016/j.cognition.2013.11.004

Can you guess the results? 

The Jahai speakers with a developed olfactory vocabulary did better on scent identification than the English Speakers...

But by "better" the researchers mean, "more agreement." Hmm...

To me, of course the more "broad" or abstract the term, the easier it is for others to agree. If you all use the same terminology, one would expect higher levels of concordance. If you do not use the same universal language, of course there might be more disparity.

"English speakers’ first responses showed very low agreement for odors. However, they often offered multiple responses for the same stimulus. For example, for the cinnamon stimulus one English speaker said: “I don't know how to say thatsweetyeahI have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes likewhat do I want to sayI can't get the word.Jesus it's like that gum smell like something like Big RedCan I say that?OkBig RedBig Red gum”. "

What is frustrating is that the researchers did not give general category prompts to the English speakers. While one person might say "Big Red" someone could say "Crumb cake" and another might actually say "Cinnamon". To me, they all "agree"...they simply don't have the universal, broad category into which they could lump these all together. However, if given a I would like to see an independent coder go through the english responses and lump them into the Jahai speakers' categories. I bet you the English speakers are all saying the same thing - just in different words.

To me, these results are not at all surprising. In a way, abstracting much of this sensory information is one function of the "tasting grid" used by those training for the Court of Master Sommeliers, and the Systematic Approach to Tasting for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. is so amazingly helpful, because it simply abstracts details and puts us "all on the same page". In the recently published Tasting Guide on The Guild of Sommeliers, binary options ("Floral: Yes, No?") are suggested to be helpful in terms of identifying a wine. Which, again, is just a way of abstracting details to get us into that more general or broad category-- which we can all agree upon. "Red Fruit" and "Stewed/Cooked" are more universal than "strawberry pie filling" and "jam from the farmer's market."



Anyway, as the Sommelier and wine community actually has its own "language" in a sense, I assume if this study was replicated with an additional "Sommelier" group, the results might show just as much agreement as the Jahai speakers... 

Actually, I'd love to take some Wine 101 students' data on aroma agreement pre-class, and then again post-class. I bet you once they have the vocabulary, they'd have higher agreement.

I have a hunch that (for the most part) the perception is NOT the issue; it is the labeling that is troublesome. This does not go against the research done, by any means. I just don't think you need a whole different culture to get at the issue.

No need to go to the Malay Peninsula. 

Instead, use wine. Teach a few abstract categories to novices. Test agreement before, and then after. Easy-peasy.

Anyone interested in running this study?** I'll make the surveys and analyze the data if you hand out the sheets and scan/mail them back to me. ;)

In the meantime, I hope you encounter some "cŋəs" things today.



**While writing this post, I went down a rabbit-hole of article research. There definitely seems to be a few relevant wine/memory/learning/identification articles, which I'll have to summarize in a future post. There is some great work on "Verbal Overshadowing", where actually naming HURTS perception! SO cool!  (And... I am a HUGE NERD.)

Anyway, I haven't found an experiment that directly gets at the issue above regarding vocabulary, but some are very close! One such study compares novice vs. expert tasters: The Academic Wino does a great job of summarizing some of this research on Novice vs Expert tasters, though those results are not clear-cut.

In Sum: Science + Wine = Awesome.