Search for the Real: Olfactory Hallucinations and Passive Learning

I see more and more people searching for olfactory illusions and I’ve written about them quite a bit, though I don’t think any of it has trickled into mainstream contemporary culinary conversation.

A few time I’ve highlighted the spectacular paper, Olfactory Illusions: Where are they?, by Richard Stevenson, but what I should mention is that there is a small academic controversy out there over the topic. Another academic, Clare Batty, has challenged Stevenson’s language in her paper, The Illusion Confusion, and claims what we are calling illusions are really hallucinations. I eventually intent to outline the difference because the repercussions are significant to my studies of wine over at my evolving Vino Endoxa project. The topic is also wildly important to creating gins, vermouths or any other complex and composed culinary artifact.

Currently to get a better grasp on the concepts (hallucination versus illusion), I’m reading Oliver Sacks’ book, Hallucinations. In Sacks’ various tales of hallucinations, one thing that comes up frequently is that many visual hallucinations get turned off when a person is doing other tasks like performing math. The ability to generate a hallucination might be related to mental activity which is no simple thing to sum up because of our ability to multitask.

This all made me think about various sensory scientist’s claims that we learn aromas better passively than actively. I played with this idea long ago when I created aromatized hand sanitizers to better learn aromas and my results were encouraging (repeated use of the sanitizer dramatically changed the threshold of perception of the odor).

True, or real (my terms) aroma perception duels constantly with recollection which we know is very powerful. I’ve said before that perception is the meeting point of incoming sensation and outgoing recollection. Sort of the like the doors of perception, there are different perceptual states with different distributions of the real and the remembered.

What I’m getting at is a hypothesis that when we are active (at another task), olfactory perception becomes more real (based on incoming sensation). When we are not distracted by other tasks, there are resources free that lets us slip into hallucinations and thus makes it harder to learn aromas.

The active and passive terminology I’ve inherited probably makes this confusing and we should just look at the distribution of resources. If we have a tendency towards olfactory hallucinations, having more mental resources free makes them morel likely to happen.

This is all just intense speculation in a hard to study subject, but why not just throw an idea out there and see what happens? Its not intended to be a justification for me drinking on the job (because when I’m busy I can learn and remember the whiskeys the best), or is it?

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