Turning the Sky Blue and Turning on Contrast Detection in Olfaction with Language

The sky isn’t blue until it is.  If you didn’t already catch this show on WNYC’s Radio Lab I’d start there.

The hosts along side Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass,  look at Homer’s the Iliad and Odyssey and investigate why the color blue is never mentioned. They even take it back to 19th century British prime minister & Homer-ophile William Gladstone who made the first inquiry.  Gladstone was intrigued by Homer’s use of strange colors for simple objects which he thought to be at odds with Homer’s acutely perceptive style. There was the wine dark sea, wine colored oxen, violet colored sheep in the cyclops caves, iron was also violet.  Honey and faces pale with fear were both green.  Homer’s visual world was very different from Gladstone’s.

Later in the 19th century antiquarian text specialist Lazerus Geiger took a stab at the mystery and came to the conclusion from witnessing similar color phenomenons in the ancient texts of nearly all other languages that even though blue is a primary color, languages do not tend to create a word for a color until they can produce the color.  In the development of language blue comes last because blue is so rare in nature and blue dyes are hard to create.  The Egyptians with their indigo were an exception.

The show then turns to Jules Davidoff, a professor of neuropsychology.  He shows twelve colored squares to a Namibian tribe (his stand in for Homer)  with no word for blue and asks “which one is different?”  Eleven of the tiles were green and only one was distinctly blue.  They had remarkable trouble figuring out which one is different. I see this as validating Marshal McLuhan’s idea in Understanding Media that literacy (of which there are many types and many subsections) facilitates fragmentation and allows us to break things down and deconstruct them. Fragmentation also leads to acting without reacting (detachement) which I’ve discussed a little bit in relation to flavor literacy. Being more literate in flavor may help us enjoy eating things that are acquired tastes and typically healthier as well as resist cravings.

Naturally this Radio Lab program turns to explaining the color of the sky which to Homer was not blue.  The program turns back to Guy Deutscher who experimented on his young daughter who was just learning to speak.  Deutscher teaches her all the colors of everything around her but never the sky. When asked what color it is in the beginning she cannot say. When eventually she can, she says it is white.  Finally she says it is blue but then flip flops for a while between white. After a while she settles on blue but it takes a while and it was never innate and obvious.

In my adventures with sensory science I’ve noticed that all the senses more or less follow the same rules. If vision and color are subject to this phenomenon where language is almost requisite for parsing sensations so too is olfaction and probably in exactly the same way.  Gordon M. Sheperd validates many of these parallels between the senses in Neurogastronomy. What is funny about olfaction is that for many people they wake up middle aged, they finally develop an interest in wine (or actually smelling whatever else they drink) but find their nose is in the state of that child that cannot determine if the sky is blue or white or just a colorless void.  They might even be like the Namibian tribe that cannot detect contrast in the green and blue tiles.  They have no words for what they smell so they say “all wine just tastes the same to me” (but maybe it does?).  The path and development of their other senses has been completely taken for granted.

In Homer’s world, fragmentation of color was poor relative to today, but some people believe their olfactory sense was more acute.  They hadn’t yet sanitized the world of its natural odors and the use of fragrance was rampant.  To get along in that intense olfactory world of good and bad aromas it would take detachment only possible by a well cultivated language.  A thousand years after Homer, in the Aeneid, the willow was acrid (a cross-modal euphonic metaphor!), probably referring to the subtle aroma of willow honey while today we only apply the acrid (Ngram) descriptor to extremes like bleach and ammonia.  Going back just a few hundred years, olfaction used to be refined enough that the aroma of cloves and cumin were bitter while now we can only apply such labels to extremes like wormwood and quinine.  Our currently atrophied olfactory world, which is widely constrained by our lack of language and categories to organize aromas likely parallels the constraints on Homer’s ability to parse and recognize color.  McLuhan said adding new media (the extensions of man!) would change our sense ratios.

In the last post I hypothesize that many aromas we perceive are in part illusions and I still stand by that. Completing gestalts with recollection is definitely a layer of aroma perception.  Another significant layer is the importance of language on our ability to parse aromas even at the simplest levels.

Many new wine drinkers have trouble recognizing oak. It takes a highly abstracted (over oaked) example to teach the typical new wine drinker what oak is so that they have a category for it.  Speaking of categories, when use of the wormwood hand sanitizer changed the threshold of perception of aromas in the wine it may parallel the twelve colored tiles experiment.  Every time I applied the hand sanitizer I thought “wormwood!” and had a well practiced category that was easily retrievable.  I may have noticed the aroma disproportionately because the category was at the fingertips of my recollection.  Funny enough, I did not smell wormwood, I smelt something more like yarrow flowers and recollection did not complete the aroma like I said can happen in the last post.  I do have unique experience with yarrow as well and other aromas in the olfactory-bitter category after experimenting widely in absinthe making (the recipe is out of date, I settled on all yerba mate!).  I wonder how other people would experience these things that do not have my unique stance.

Wine scholars put big emphasis on turning wine into words but no one really pin points why.  When you start to put big emphasis on language people sometimes shoot you down and say its not necessary, but do they smell the blue tile!?

And what categories can help me detect contrast and smell as many different tiles as possible? I champion categorizing olfaction in terms of gustation with the olfactory-sweet, olfactory-umami, olfactory-bitter, etc.  Those five categories can replace an entire unabridged dictionary of object comparisons (cherry, cassis, goose berry, eucalyptus).

Barb Stuckey emphasized language in her excellent primer on new flavor theory called Taste What You’re Missing.  Really nailing the edutainment I can’t seem to master, Stuckey explains the individual facets of the multisensory perception of flavor to help develop categories for beginning tasters.  Her idea is awareness of categories will help you “taste what you’re missing” and I whole heartedly agree.

Another method of developing categories that facilitate contrast detection is Anne Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel.  Taken directly from the why use it section of her website: “Novice tasters often complain that they ‘cannot smell anything’ or can’t think of a way to describe the aroma of wine. They don’t have the words! Fortunately, it is very easy to train our noses and brains to associate descriptive terms with specific aroma notes in wine.”  If an organized wheel of categories is placed in front of someone it may help them smell the color blue.

All this contrast enhancement by language supported category formation is making me contemplate the auditory sense.  Is there more to be heard? It feels like there is no way I’m not hearing the color blue.  A great edutaining book on the neuroscience of music I read long ago is This is Your Brain on Music.  The author is a sound engineer turned neuroscientist and at one point I remember him telling the tale of how he educated and developed his ear to hear the unique things few other people can hear. Sound engineers have sound boards with tons of controls which are essentially categories. The more categories they are aware of, and can abstract (through turning a dial) to reinforce the properties of, the more contrast they can likely detect.  We function fairly well in this world with an auditory sense that in most cases gets no special training, but there is still always an amazing potential for enhancement.

Next time you encounter a glass of a wine ponder what beautiful and extraordinary aromas might lurk just beyond the reach of your words.

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