Naming scents can help you imagine them (and better appreciate wine?)

ResearchBlogging.orgIn 2007 I received a really cool Christmas present that I still haven't used. It's a kit to help identify the various components of the aroma in a glass of wine. I haven't used it because I wanted to wait for the right occasion -- say, a party with some of my wine-loving friends. But I've also been secretly skeptical whether it would really help. The kit has tiny vials that are supposed to represent individual aromas: "oak," "hazelnut," "coffee," "cherry," and so on. What does identifying an aroma have to do with deciding whether you like a glass of wine?

As it turns out, more than you might think. Richard Stevenson, Trevor Case, and Mehmet Mahmut took a look at the history of research into aromas and found that in nearly every case, people have had great difficulty identifying and imagining them. If I ask you to visualize a physical object that you have seen before: a car, a giraffe, and so on, you would probably have little difficulty. But if I ask you to imagine a smell, even one you have recently experienced (perhaps you opened one of the little vials in my kit), you would find it much harder to do.

Another problem with odor detection is identification. Most people can readily identify common items when they can see them: oranges, nuts, cats. But when asked to identify an odor when there is no other information about the object, they are much less accurate.

Stevenson's team says that one of the primary reasons we have trouble identifying odors is that we usually don't have names for them. They trained 12 volunteers to recognize 15 different odors by having them sniff unlabeled vials of scented liquid. Other volunteers were exposed to the odors the same amount of time but not given their names, or trained on the names of the odors without being allowed to smell them. One week later, everyone was exposed to all the odors one more time, and given each odor's name (baby powder, lemon, shoe polish, oregano, etc.). Then they were asked to identify the odors. A fourth group, which didn't have any training, was tested in the same way. Here are the results:


The people who were trained on the names of the odors were significantly better at identifying them, compared to everyone else in the study. Being trained on the names of the odors in advance did help a little in terms of accuracy, but it didn't help at all when asked to imagine the odors. All the participants were asked to imagine each odor and then report on how well they could imagine the odors. Here are the results for the easiest odors (Vicks Vap-o-Rub, Baby Powder, Lemon):


Those who learned the names of each odor rated them as being significantly easier to imagine and significantly more vivid. The images were formed significantly faster as well. Being exposed to just the odors or the names didn't help people imagine the odors more vividly or faster.

So, returning to my wine-tasting example, this study suggests that being able to identify specific aromas with a label like "cinnamon" or "smoke" may improve my ability to imagine what a particular wine smells like. Later, when I'm in the store trying to decide what wine to buy, that memory could help me make a better purchase. I guess I should start calling up my friends to arrange a wine-smelling party!

Update: Over at BPS Research Digest, Christian has nearly simultaneously posted about describing wine and its impact on memory.

Stevenson, R.J., Case, T.I., Mahmut, M. (2007). Difficulty in evoking odor images: The role of odor naming Memory & Cognition, 35 (3), 578-589

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I wonder about the effect of using odor names that also describe an object (lemon, oregano, etc) as opposed to ones that don't -- eg 'snippid', the smell of wet leaves, from Calvin & Hobbes. The only real world example I can think of is 'musty', which is iffy because it may come from the same roots as 'moist'.

The 'snippid' example comes up in my mind a lot as well. I've spent a considerable amount of time thinking about this. My wondering extends your train of thought, Alioth: I feel that we need generic descriptors. If we saw a yellow ball on a table, we wouldn't describe it as 'lemon'. We would say it is yellow, and round, and about 3 inches across, and shiny, etc. About the only generic smell word I can think of is 'strong' (comparable to 'bright', perhaps).

Musty is a pretty good example, (I think it's a portmanteau of moist and dusty), which brings to mind dusty, one that I have wondered about. One of the key sensations of something smelling dusty is that you can strongly feel the particles in your nose. But I can get this same sensation smelling many spices, or flowers. Where's the word that describes a smell with a distinct physical presence in your nose? Particlacious?

It would be interesting to get a perfume maker or the like to describe the words they use when discovering new smells.


FWIW, I looked up musty on EtymOnline, and it says "1530, perhaps a variant of moisty "moist, damp" (see moist)." It doesn't come right out and assert something -- and I find the portmanteau theory both appealing and plausible.

I wish they would repeat this experiment with made-up words. Bonus points for distinguishing whether the words have an obvious adjective ending (which is easier to say, "that smells graxey" or "that smells grax"?).

The made-up scent words brought to mind two from Martin Amis, both used to describe apartment scents of several of his non-uxorious characters.
So his place might smell of batch. Hers of spinst.
Trying to describe any non-visual perceptions is good exercise, and it's not surprising that attaching names is an effective mnemonic for taste and smell.
As for the practicality at the wine shop, I have a feeling that shop owners might object to watching their customers opening multiple bottles in search of the wild asparagus, or ripe berry, cinnamon or citrus notes. What's real and what's marketing hype?
If there are wines that give off baby powder or Vick's scents, it would be helpful to be forewarned.
'Must' is also the term for new wine that hasn't finished fermenting, so all wine has a musty phase.

How about a link or info on the "kit to help identify the various components of the aroma in a glass of wine" ?

It was great to meet you at the conference this weekend! Thanks for the great talk about book publishing!

I too have always been fascinated by the whole wine tasting culture and wondered how anyone could get all those names for flavors out of one glass of fermented juice. I've not got much of a pallete when it comes to wine, but maybe now I'll give naming things a try and see if I can refine my senses beyond "sweet", "dry", and "blech".

This odour descriptor thing has also amazed me since it is subjective, now you can patent odours, and i wonder how those descriptions go, "odour of a bouquet of roses held by a virgin, running over a a lavender field near the ocean."