literacy of the olfactory sense; acting without reacting

in Understanding Media, Marshall Macluhan tell us that the greatest gift of literacy is the ability to “act without reacting”.

reacting involves the unconscious as well as instinctual and is often rash and not suitable to our modern world.  we escape reacting by detachment from our primal urges via literacy.

literacy involves fragmentation, separation, and parsing.  just like we have to become literate in mediums like text (or the extensions of man as Macluhan would say), so to do we have to become literate in our own native senses.

Macluhan’s work drew attention to what we overlooked and took for granted (so much so that it really freaked a lot of people out) and here i will try to explore another example of the over looked and hopefully connect some dots.  olfaction is definitely the hardest sense to wield and therefore the most difficult sense to become literate in.  i would venture to say that very few could be called olfactory literate which means that the rest of us must constantly be reacting instead of detachedly acting… but what are the consequences?

lets point out some examples from the life of a restaurant worker…

we can observe the non-literate wine drinkers’ almost violent negative reaction to certain wines.  they respond quickly as if the wine is completely unpalatable if not poisonous.  “too sweet” yet the wine is fermented to dryness so the perception is just an illusion of the aroma.  many do not enjoy when a wine smells like dirt and earth (olfactory-umami).  because these drinkers have no detachment, they cannot even seem to notice that other people are capable of enjoying that wine.  for these non-literate it takes intense positive symbolism for them to reconcile a dissonant sensory wine experience (often times the dissonance is gustatory and not olfactory such as in tannic wines or the highly acidic).

wines can seem to differ just marginally such as the tonality of the fruit aroma, but to some people they seem as if they are separated by great chasms.  these people are not the literate with exceptional contrast detection, but rather the illiterate.  it is counter intuitive that the more literate you are in wine the more styles you are able to enjoy.  with the detachment cultivated from experience the literate just make pronouncements of either ordinary or extraordinary and identify flaws; or obvious missed opportunities; what could have beens…

when wielding your nose, the less detachment you have, the more likely you are to respond severely to “foul” odors such as body odor or spoilage.  in another example, yesterday i was outside working in the garage behind the restaurant (my endless motorcycle rebuild project) with three other guys who were really ready to lose it because of the odor of the trash barrels in the hot sun and/or the odor of a very pungent dead mouse.  these were just three average guys; not wine drinkers nor foodies, and this aroma was really getting to them like a migraine.  i on the other hand took it in with detachment.  the aroma was present and i definitely smelt it, but it didn’t bother me nearly to the degree it bothered the other guys.

a lack of control most typically observed with inharmonious aromas might also have a counterpart with harmonious aromas.  over eating may possibly be due to poor olfactory literacy.  Barb Stuckey’s fairly new book Taste What You’re Missing, which is an excellent primer on the multisensory perception of flavor, posits that increased flavor literacy will have positive dietary consequences.  without the self control that comes with detachment which in turn comes with literacy, harmonious aromas may seduce us into dangerous over consumption.

if you want a fun stretch, infidelity in certain cases may be influenced by poor olfactory literacy. “…could not muster enough detachment, her aroma incited over consumption.”

literacy may be what saved me from the irritation and distraction of that foul odor out in the garage and literacy might also be how i am able to enjoy so many wine styles.  but how did i become so literate?

one explanation is that i constantly accrue metaphors  (if you haven’t already noticed the subject of most of this blog).  metaphors improve contrast detection by applying language to my experiences.  contrast detection leads to segmentation which leads to detachment which leads to self control which facilitates rational reaction.  detachment is not without paying attention.  my perception strategy gives great attention to whatever i eat yet i still remain detached.

another idea that i’ve been toying with is that good and bad (positive and negative, harmonious and inharmonious) in aroma categorization is not as subjective as people think and the reason is that olfaction is synaesthetically linked to gustation.  it is acknowledged that we have instinctual rewards for gustatory divisions tied to nutritional value (we seek out sweetness!).  if olfaction has the privilege of wandering down the pathways of our reward systems which are initially setup for the other senses there is an instinctual set of good and bad aromas, but of course that set can change as our reward systems compete.

see Reward Systems Theories where anxiety dispelling reward systems over take nutritional reward systems.