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Monday, June 18, 2007 -- 10:35 pm

I've heard and read that human olfactory receptors number in the hundreds; it's not clear to me that they've been catalogued precisely, and somehow I doubt it, but it would seem to follow from this that our perception of individual odors, which are often comprised of dozens of different chemicals, will depend on our attention, experience, and relative sensitivity to various ingredients. This would, in turn, probably go far toward explaining why people struggle, often quite foolishly, to describe complex flavors, for example in wine -- and even when they do so, they've still left us with no clear idea whatsoever of what the wine actually tasted like. This contrasts remarkably with verbal descriptions of images, where spatial designations, shape words, and color terms can be quite vivid; it also contrasts sharply with musical notation, which can give a surprisingly good indication of what music is supposed to sound like.

But if we only have a few hundred olfactory receptors, I would think we'd be able to remedy this shortcoming in our olfactory terminology by simply assigning terms for the different odors we can detect. As a preliminary draft, this might consist of one word per receptor, although I suspect that some receptors may have a certain flexibility in the chemicals they can identify that would introduce a level of ambiguity. And there would also be perceptual ambiguity because, as in color-blindedness, people may not be equally sensitive to different chemicals to the same degree, and even if they're capable of detecting certain odors, may find them all noteworthy to varying degrees. Instruction in the use of this terminology would be complicated, and require a highly specialized set of experiences, namely, exposure to discrete chemicals. But this is no different from the gradual accumulation of vocabulary as we grow up, travel, take up hobbies, and the rest. We wouldn't need to subject our children to a crash course in olfaction all at once.