Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Rose, if Called Cheddar Cheese...

Via Language Log, and David Beaver's post titled "Juliet Was Wrong," which begins
Standing at a window overlooking her family orchard in Verona about 700 years ago, Juliet Capulet is reputed to have developed a famous hypothesis which Shakespeare later recorded. Details may have been lost in translation, transmogrified through the passage of several hundred years before her words were set down, or magnified from nought by the pen of a man whose poetic license has never been paralleled. This is what she hypothesized:

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,

The guy smelt pretty damn sweet for Juliet to scent him from a window high above an orchard. But remember, these were the middle ages. Anyhow, it turns it she was wrong.
I discovered this paper (the full reference to which is at the end of this post). Apparently the label you give to a smell does matter. "Clean air" which was called "cheddar cheese" was rated as smelling more pleasant than the same air which was labeled "body odor." The researchers also collected some functional neuroimaging data, and discovered that the level of activation in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex, which are activated by odors, was influenced by the labels. In particular, "cheddar cheese" produced more activation in these areas, and the activation in both areas was correlated with the pleasantness ratings. The authors postulate that this top-down influence of conceptual/semantic information on olfactory perception occurs through mechanisms similar to those that are involved in the selection of attended information in vision.

I don't really have anything to say about the research. The olfactory system is way outside of my area of expertise, though I do recommend checking out the work on visual attention that they cite. Gustavo Deco does some very cool work.

The paper's full citation is:
de Araujo, I.E., Rolls, E.T., Velazco, M.I., Margot, C., & Cayeux, I. (2005). Cognitive modulation of olfactory processing. Neuron, 46, 671-679.

4 comments:

Blar said...

This finding isn't new. It's been discussed here:

Lisa: His name doesn't matter. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
Bart: Not if you called them stench blossoms.
Homer: Or crapweeds.
Marge: I'd sure hate to get a dozen crapweeds for Valentine's Day. I'd rather have candy.
Homer: Not if they were called scumdrops!

This isn't even the first time that it's shown up on Language Log. Here they quote Martha Nussbaum:

"Disgust is not simple distaste because, Rozin has found, the very same smell elicits different disgust reactions depending on the subject's conception of the object. Subjects sniff decay odor from two different vials, both of which in reality contain the same substance; they are told that one vial contains feces and the other contains cheese. (The real smells are confusable.) Those who think that they are sniffing cheese usually like the smell; those who think they are sniffing feces find it repellent and unpleasant."

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