strange olfactory phenomena: adventures in contrast detection

The other day I went to the Ruby Wines annual wine tasting at the Harvard club.  It is a great event and one of my favorites for the big annuals that our distributors put on.  I was only able to taste about 30 wines before I had to leave for work.

Two of the wines I tasted had the strange, potent, distinct, and lovely aroma of bitter field flowers.  For a more specific object comparison I’d say Yarrow flowers.

This was strange to me because I’ve a tasted a lot of wine in my day and never come across this expression with this much intensity.  One wine was a dry white Anjou Chenin Blanc that I was unfamiliar with while the other was the latest vintage of Cos’ Cersuolo from Sicily which I’ve had numerous times.  I asked the always awesome Brad Groper of Domaine Select who was pouring the wine if there was anything unusual about the vintage and he said no and that they’ve been keeping a good average.

Here’s the kicker. I’ve been using my wormwood aromatized hand sanitizer that I developed as an aroma teaching tool.  In the last month I’ve had repeated exposure to the aroma over the course of my shifts at work.  The aroma I experienced disproportionately in the two wines was not Wormwood, but very close two it.  Wormwood and Yarrow both could be said as having a connection to the same gustatory division (bitterness) and if you created an imaginary spatial scale they would lay very close to each other.  Could repeated exposure to the experimental hand sanitizer have changed contrast detection for me in wines?

Way back when, I wrote a post that tried to outline the difference between my banana and your banana and how we experience and construct reality.  I was partially inspired by Leonard Koren’s fantastic book Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean: Ten Definitions.  My theory was that acquired tastes and differences in metabolized dissonance may lead us to believe that each of us constructs reality when eating very differently.  I thought we all could compare intensities of stimuli similarly enough, but simply we just could not agree on enjoying them (valence).  Maybe my bizarre experience here shows how repeated exposure to a stimulus can significantly effect contrast detection.  If you need a primer on tricks that exploit changes in contrast detection check out Omar Pasha’s Black Art Theatre.  I hypothesized a while ago that a change in contrast detection similar to what was experienced in black art theater is a large part of how reactive wine pairings work where contrast detection changes and after images react with current stimuli.  It was just a blog post and I didn’t get to fully explore the ideas because I don’t deal with pairings at work anymore, but an astounding amount of people checked out the post.  No one seems to have adopted the theory yet… (…to be too far ahead of your time like Van Gogh!)

Well to use all these ideas in a beautiful context, when I get recruited to work at a lux, progressive, budget-less, overachieving dining establishment, I’m going to mail people bottles of experimental hand sanitizer with their reservations.  When they expose themselves the aroma (who doesn’t use hand sanitizer?) we can proceed to do a tasting of wines from our catalog that enjoy marked changes in contrast detection.  This will demonstrate the highly subjective nature of our construction of “reality”.  The great Nabakov referred to reality as the one work that should always be in quotes!

Astute readers will be comparing this strange olfactory phenomenon to Francois Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art & Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor.  He seems to have a new edition of the book which makes the content seem less about food & wine interaction and more about flavor theory in general.  Chartier posited the idea that reactive wine pairings were the product of matching aroma molecules in the food & wine.  I was not too keen on his idea.  But in this strange case we are probably also matching molecules from the conditioned stimulus with the wine.  The big difference is the amount of time and repetition.  Could pairings as Chartier envisioned become effected by this same type of contrast detection change or could they be more likely governed by others such as in my Nutritional Preference Theory?  We need more minds on this puzzle!


A text that explains the nitty-gritty of changes in olfactory contrast detect is Gordon M. Shepard’s Neurogastronomy which is astoundingly cool and I wrote a little bit about it here.

For those collecting olfactory illusions, another that I’ve come across lately was experienced when drilling colored pieces of plastic.  Molecules in the plastic are very similar to sucrose and somehow elicit a sensation of olfactory-sweetness (an illusion in its own right), but when combined with the color, drilling the cherry-red plastic can make you think you are smelling cherries.  The black plastic can be like licorice.  This leads me to believe that many object comparisons we make when tasting wine come from experiencing very general gestalts that trigger very specific memories.  A ghost arises from the memories and covers the very general gestalt that is hard to un-summon. Color and olfactory-sweetness end up being enough to summon a very vivid phantom aroma of cherry. Perception ends up being the fusion of our real sensory experience with our past recollections.  And the distribution of the two influences varies greatly and to some degree can be wielded.


I have been pondering the world of experts who might have unique thresholds of perception for aromas they are trained in.  A realm where unique contrast detection abilities might develop is food spoilage.  Kitchen workers who handle large amounts of food might train themselves on spoilage aromas and be able to detect them when a non-cook cannot.  This is a very valuable skill for obvious reasons and it seems as though it would be useful to know more about it.  Maybe kitchens should intentionally spoil small amounts of food and then train their line cooks on the aromas? That way they can spot them at lower thresholds in the future.

4 thoughts on “strange olfactory phenomena: adventures in contrast detection

  1. a comment from my awesome friend David Crawford

    “The difference in experience that people have with olfactory stimuli can be demonstrated subjectively by asking someone to think of an aroma which they associate strongly with an event. It is highly unlikely that another person has lived through the same or similar event, and impossible for another person to have had the same generative set of experiences, and hence there exists at least one meaning whose extraction is unique to that individual, and in the vividity of their past experience, they have been sensitized to that aroma. We also commonly accept aromas which conjure not specific moments, but general atmospheres – clean linens, for home; warm cider, for fall etc. If it is possible for deeply significant, easily recalled, scent/moment combinations, and broad feelings based on smell, then it is a minor step of logic to imagine that it is plausible on an even more minor scale, for those stimuli we may not even have been aware of experiencing in the first place, but have, nonetheless, left their mark on us.”

  2. Have you see this paper?

    Admittedly, the recipe sources could be chosen more thoughtfully. I’m envisioning asking “experts” in a given regional or cultural entity to curate a set of representative recipes, then feeding that input into a similar analysis. However, I don’t think the result would be too divergent.


    i read that paper last year when it came out and wrote my take on it in the above link which is over on egullet.

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