Saturday, September 9, 2017

Training your nose - Can you get better at smelling whiskey? - Part Two

If you missed part one of this chapter, check it out here

Second step: Talking to an expert

I want to get better at smelling bourbon. I figured I’d employ a method I use when acquiring new skills in general and write about my process, while in the process. The method consists of three steps: 1. own research, 2. talking to an expert, and 3. using a learning tool. In part one of this article I took you along as I read a bunch of Wikipedia articles, with the hope of getting a overview of the field to help me navigate to areas of improvement.

But all this new knowledge is theoretical so far. I need some processing in conversation with someone who really understands all of it. I need to bounce ideas and questions with someone who has put in the real work.

Maria Larsson & Erik Hasselgärde
I managed to get some time with the best of them: Maria Larsson. Maria is both a professor of perception and psychophysics at the Department of Psychology. She is the director of the Gösta Ekman Laboratory at Stockholm University and also a member of the Swedish National Committee for Psychological Sciences at the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. She is the principal investigator of “Our unique sense of smell”, an international research program investigating various aspects of the sense of smell, including how to further the understanding of odor memory. I had the chance to meet her in her laboratory, to ask about the things I learned in the first step.

The conversation
I wanted to ask Maria about both the physiological and psychological aspects of smelling, but also my method: Did the sole act of searching and reading on the internet result in any actual information retention and am I on the right path of understanding and improving my sense of smell?

In general, what I had picked up from reading was confirmed by Maria and talking about the physics of smelling, we quickly got into aspects of evolution: “Evolutionary, our sense of smell has been linked to our instinct of survival” she told me. “The primary function of it is to act as a warning system–triggering action rather than communication”, a theory that also explains why the nerves connecting the olfactory parts of the human brain to the verbal ones are relatively few.

Maria, an experienced educator, then told me that although we are far worse (“terrible” in her words) at identifying olfactory impressions than visual or auditory, this skill can quite easily be trained:

In a training experiment her research team conducted, a group of people first were tested for a baseline ability of identifying and remembering smells, and then for forty days trained short amounts at a time in a memory-type program. With relatively small measures they quickly observed interesting results: “we saw massive improvement, especially in identifying smells–which in some cases after the program equaled the ability of wine experts”.

Maria also confirmed my theory that for me to improve I should focus on exposure and suggested including verbal processing for memory retention.

“Like improvement in any field, feedback is also important” she added. “When trying to identify smells, immediate affirmation in being either right or wrong is essential”.

At the end of our talk I asked Maria if she as an expert had any tips on the act of smelling itself, maybe a special technique to employ. “Not exactly”, she answered. “But our studies show that people who are more active with their sense of smell in general can develop associated skills, for example the ability to smell in their dreams, which for untrained people is very rare.”. “We can also see that these these people are much better at recollecting smells from memory rather than stimuli”. The last part could be very helpful to my improvement.

Summarising the conversation, Maria finishes our time together with a personal reflection: “I would like us to be more aware of our sense of smell. Adding another sense results in a richer life and more depth to our experience of the world”.
I left Marias laboratory with a lot of new information, but foremost new confidence in my development, and inspiration to improve!

Written By Erik Hasselgärde

Make sure to check back in next week, as Erik walk us through step three