Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind | A. S. Barwich
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A pioneering exploration of olfaction that upsets settled notions of how the brain translates sensory information.
Decades of cognition research have shown that external stimuli “spark” neural patterns in particular regions of the brain. This has fostered a view of the brain as a space that we can map: here the brain responds to faces, there it perceives a sensation in your left hand. But it turns out that the sense of smell―only recently attracting broader attention in neuroscience―doesn’t work this way. A. S. Barwich asks a deceptively simple question: What does the nose tell the brain, and how does the brain understand it?
Barwich interviews experts in neuroscience, psychology, chemistry, and perfumery in an effort to understand the biological mechanics and myriad meanings of odors. She argues that it is time to stop recycling ideas based on the paradigm of vision for the olfactory system. Scents are often fickle and boundless in comparison with visual images, and they do not line up with well-defined neural regions. Although olfaction remains a puzzle, Barwich proposes that what we know suggests the brain acts not only like a map but also as a measuring device, one that senses and processes simple and complex odors.
Accounting for the sense of smell upsets theories of perception philosophers have developed. In their place, Smellosophy articulates a new model for understanding how the brain represents sensory information.
“This is a special book…Barwich does philosophy that is empirically directed and historically informed. It teaches readers a lot about olfaction. It teaches us even more about what philosophy can be.”―Rachel Fraser, Times Literary Supplement
“Seeks to banish entrenched prejudice against the nose. Barwich…argues that we could discover far more about consciousness if we would only relinquish our old-school fixation on sight…Rather than mapping the external world and constructing an accurate representation of it in the brain, our sense of smell seems to involve a continuous, ever-shifting negotiation between our interior and exterior lives.”―Harper’s
“Lively, authoritative…Aims to rehabilitate smell’s neglected and marginalized status.”―Mike Jay, Wall Street Journal
“Barwich writes with charm and precision about our preconceptions of how the olfactory system works and how it is different from the other sensory mechanisms that keep us alive and (relatively) safe…An illuminating discussion of the interface between the logical coherence of philosophy and the empirical disciplines of science.”―Michael Bywater, The Spectator
“Barwich melds a philosophical perspective with a rich history of olfactory science, tackling big questions with layers of perceptual, psychological, and neurobiological explanations…She offers rich discussions of olfactory perception, the conscious and subconscious impacts of smell on behavior and emotion, and the physical and behavioral details that determine what odors we inhale, furnishing broad insights into the psychology of olfaction.”―John P. McGann, Science
“A beguiling analysis of olfactory experience that is fast becoming a core reference work in the field.”―Joe Humphreys, Irish Times
“Barwich takes us deeper into the human stories, key advances, and dead ends of olfaction science, interspersed with philosophical theory…A timely dispatch from the research trenches, surveying a field in flux.”―Barbara Kiser, Issues in Science and Technology
“An impressive work…Undoubtedly one of the most comprehensive and accessible studies of olfaction…Barwich brilliantly dovetails psychology with neurophysiology, detailing how olfaction operates by markedly distinct principles of neural representation in comparison with vision, audition, and somatosensation.”―Ekin Erkan, Perception
“Barwich guides the reader into the fascinating science (both historical and contemporary) of odors and olfaction.”―Brad Thompson, The Philosophers’ Magazine
“Finding out why mint smells different from a skunk’s spray turns out to be a much harder problem than why red looks different from blue. Barwich tells the fascinating story of why the science of smell has gone down many a false trail, and why the sciences of vision and audition made breakthroughs while olfaction remained mired in mystery. Smellosophy taught me a lot about my brain’s smelly world.”―Patricia Churchland, author of Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition
“A. S. Barwich’s new book, written with passion and infectious delight, unites history, art, philosophy, and in-depth interviews with pioneers in modern olfaction science. The result will enhance every reader’s appreciation for the role of smell in human life.”―Gordon M. Shepherd, author of Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters
“Lewis Thomas famously remarked that smell contains ‘all the mysteries’ of biology; figure it out and you will have solved most of them. A. S. Barwich is a superb documentarian of the science behind how the brain detects an enormous range of odorous molecules, while also capturing the wonder of perceiving complex smells that form lasting emotional memories. Smellosophy is a unique and wondrous blend of the science of smell, the art and practice of research, the philosophy of consciousness, and ‘all the mysteries’ in between.”―Stuart Firestein, author of Ignorance: How It Drives Science
“This is the book on perception we have been waiting for: a scientifically-informed and philosophically astute treatment of our elusive sense of smell. A. S. Barwich skillfully guides us through the history of its study, recent discoveries, and philosophical theorizing about smell, and, in doing so, makes a significant contribution to all three.”―Barry C. Smith, Centre for the Study of the Senses, University of London
“Fabulous…[A] serious work that [has] brought me a great deal of pleasure.”―Victoria Moore, Daily Telegraph
“A love letter to olfaction. This book effortlessly blends science and philosophy and is a must-read for anyone with a sense of smell.”―Leslie B. Vosshall, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and The Rockefeller University
“Well-written and engaging, Smellosophy transforms the breakdown of complex concepts into a really good read. This book is an astonishing integration of all aspects of olfaction, relevant to scientists across disciplines as well as to any reader interested in the aromas of wine, coffee, and other scents hidden in our daily experiences.”―Ann Noble, creator of the Wine Aroma Wheel
“Barwich brings the curious science of smell to life through interviews with many of its key players. If you relish mysteries and constructing the logic to solve them, read Smellosophy.”―Terry Acree, Department of Food Science, Cornell University
“Makes a strong case for rethinking the scientific study of odor perception…Smellosophy works to shape olfaction studies―and neuroscience writ large.”―Nedah N. Nemati, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
About the Author
A. S. Barwich is Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University Bloomington. She has been a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University’s Center for Science and Society and has held a Research Fellowship at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Vienna.
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