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Opening the Way for an Olfactory Aesthetics: Smell’s Cognitive Powers

Larry Shiner
p. 8-26


The first part of this paper surveys types of olfactory art as well as some of the philosophical denials that odors and the sense of smell can be used for serious art making, raising the paradox that olfactory art seems actual, but the mainstream philosophical tradition has declared that one cannot make genuine artworks from odors. The second and third part of the paper address the primary argument against possibility of an olfactory aesthetics, namely, the claim that the human sense of smell does not have sufficient cognitive capacity to support rational aesthetic discussion and judgment. The second part (The intuitive case for smell’s cognitive powers) examines and answers intuitive philosophical arguments against smell’s cognitive potential and the third part (The empirical case for the cognitive capacity of smell) first surveys evidence from the sciences that could be interpreted as supporting the negative position, before marshalling other empirical evidence in favor of smell’s cognitive powers. I conclude that on balance contemporary neuroscience and psychology support the view that the human sense of smell has the cognitive capacity to sustain rational aesthetic discussion and judgment.

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Testo integrale


Is olfactory art possible?

1First, let’s briefly survey of some of kinds of olfactory arts being made today, beginning with art works intended to be presented in galleries and museums. At the entrance to her 2017 Guggenheim show in New York, Life is Cheap, Anicka Yi placed three canisters emitting a smell combining the simulated scent of Asian women and the carpenter ants featured in one of her other works. Earlier that year, Christophe Laudamiel’s Over 21 offered visitors to a New York gallery ten canisters of synthetic scents with sexually suggestive names, placed around a dining table; visitors experienced them by dipping perfume blotters in a small hole in the top of each canister and writing down their impressions. Peter de Cupere’s Tree Virus (2008) consisted of a large ball of peppermint and white pepper with a dead tree sitting on top of it. The odor was so pungent that many of the people who went inside to see and smell Tree Virus, quickly ran out again, their eyes burning. In 2015 the Tinguely Museum of Basel drew together a selection of over 60 works by artists past and present in Belle Haleine-The Art of Scent.

2But museum and gallery art works like those just mentioned are not the only kinds of olfactory arts being made today. For example, odors are also being used to enhance works of theater and music. The French drama Parfums de l’ame (2012) released over a dozen scents from beneath theater seats. And in what is perhaps the most ambitious experiment in olfactory art to date, Green Aria: A Scent Opera (2009) at the Guggenheim combined electronic music with 30 odors to narrate an environmental message. Meanwhile, designers are using smells in many of their designs, such as the creation of signature scents for hotel chains and retail stores. Finally, there is the oldest of the olfactory arts, perfume, whose more complex and interesting fragrances can be appreciated purely for their aesthetic structure and intensity as works of art, for example, as they were in the 2012-2013 exhibition, The Art of Scent, presented at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design.

  • 1 The major book-length exceptions are Jaquet 2010 and Hsu 2020. Some useful articles include: Barwic (...)
  • 2 Hegel 1975: 38, Scruton 2009: 122.
  • 3 Kant 2012: 66-67.
  • 4 Kant 1987: 145.
  • 5 Scruton 2009: 122, Dutton 2009: 207-212.
  • 6 Parsons, Carlson 2008: 167-95, Dowling 2010: 226-238, Forsey 2013: 209-210.
  • 7 Darwin 1981: 24, Freud 1961: 46, 53.
  • 8 Gardner 1993: 61, Calvino 1988: 65-83.

3Although experiments with odors in the arts have been going on for decades, philosophical aesthetics has only begun to explore their aesthetic implications.1 One reason there has been little attention to odors and the sense of smell in aesthetics is a long-standing tradition reaching from Kant and Hegel to Roger Scruton, Dennis Dutton and several others in this century that has explicitly denied that odors can be used to make art works or that the sense of smell can be a vehicle of genuine aesthetic experiences.2 Kant claimed that smells primarily make us aware of our own bodily states rather than of the objects that emit them and rejected the idea that responses to smells could be part of universal judgments.3 He remarks in the Critique of Judgment that although the visual aspects of a flower constitute what he calls free beauty, and can claim universal assent, the flower’s smell gives it no claim to universality at all since it delights one person, and makes another dizzy.4 The late Roger Scruton made similar objections to the aesthetic possibilities of smell as did Dennis Dutton.5 Other philosophers who have denied the artistic potential of odors and the aesthetic potential of the sense of smell include Allen Carlson, Glenn Parsons, Christopher Dowling, and Jane Forsey.6 These denials are not surprising in light of the still widely circulated idea that the human sense of smell is not only weak but, as both Darwin and Freud claimed, may be an evolutionary vestige of little use on its way to disappearing.7 Thus, the distinguished Harvard psychologist, Howard Gardner was still claiming in the 1990s that the sense of smell is of little importance across cultures and the great Italian novelist, Italo Calvino has his narrator say at the beginning of Il nome, il naso that the perfumes of the future will be like epigraphs written in an indecipherable alphabet for the noseless man of the future.8

4We seem to be faced with a paradox. On the one hand, olfactory art exists or at least is accepted by some art museums and galleries as serious art and there are art critics who write about it. On the other hand, olfactory art and the sense of smell continue to be largely ignored by philosophical aesthetics and, more importantly, the Kant to Scruton tradition raises doubts about whether olfactory works are truly art and whether the sense of smell can be a vehicle for genuine aesthetic experience. Olfactory art seems actual, but is it possible, i.e. are these works really art and is the human sense of smell capable of informing reflective aesthetic experiences?

  • 9 Beardsley 1958: 99.
  • 10 Scruton 2009: 162.
  • 11 Dutton 2009: 212.

5Contemporary claims that odors cannot be used to make genuine art works can be disposed of more easily than the challenges to the aesthetic potential of the sense of smell. A classic statement of the claim that odors cannot be used to make art works is Monroe Beardsley’s assertion that there is not enough order within the sensory fields of taste and smell, to construct objects that have balance, climax, development, or pattern in the way works of literature or music do, which explains why, he says, there have been no symphonies composed of tastes or sonatas composed of smells.9 Similarly, Roger Scruton argued that smells mingle together and lose their individuality, remaining free floating and unavailable to create generate tension or harmony, suspension or release.10 And like Scruton, Dutton also drew a sweeping negative conclusion about the artistic and aesthetic possibilities of smell, claiming that smell’s lack of potential to give structured expression to the more serious emotions counts decisively against smell as a medium for an independent art form that might someday stand alongside music, painting, and literature.11

  • 12 Sibley 2001: 228.
  • 13 Jaquet 2010: 232.

6But as Frank Sibley has pointed out, the volatility and evanescence objection to odors as an art medium not only runs counter to our aesthetic experience with other long accepted aesthetic objects (storms at sea, bird songs) but also to many now well established fine art forms, such as improvisational music and performance art.12 More generally, as the French philosopher Chantal Jaquet argues, the claim that odors cannot be used to make works of art, because of their volatility and ephemerality and the difficulty of organizing them into coherently structured works, assumes a traditional concept of the artwork as a permanent object, something that no longer holds for much of contemporary art.13 Moreover, it is clear that many artists who make or commission perfumes, as well as professional perfumers themselves, organize notes of differing volatilities into structures and sequences that give their works variety in unity, a traditional criterion of aesthetic excellence for art works. When one combines these counter arguments with the existence of actual olfactory art works that are taken seriously by critics and institutions, the denial of the potential of odors for creating art works is refuted in both theory and practice. Although more could be said on the subject of the viability of odors as an art medium, the crucial issue that I will focus on in the remainder of this essay is the claim that the human sense of smell lacks sufficient cognitive powers to fund critical aesthetic experience.

The intuitive case for smell’s cognitive powers

7There are two avenues for exploring smell’s cognitive aspects; one uses traditional intuitive arguments based on paradigm examples, the other draws on the results of empirical science. In this Section, I will briefly consider the intuitive case against smell’s cognitive powers and then outline some intuitive arguments in favor of the cognitive potential of smell.

8The specific respect in which the sense of smell has been considered to be most cognitively deficient by many philosophers, from Kant on, is that smell deceives us into thinking we are in contact with the real world when all we experience in smelling are our own sensations. Moreover, many philosophers have believed that smell is not only subjective in this sense, but that it also varies so widely from individual to individual that it could not contributed to universalizable judgments. Although the wider background of the subjectivity charge is the traditional depreciation of the body in Western religion and philosophy that Nietzsche inveighed against, the status of smell in the contemporary field of the philosophy of perception remains controversial.

  • 14 Scruton 1979: 114.
  • 15 Scruton 2009: 121.

9In contemporary philosophy of perception, the Kantian doctrine of the subjectivity of olfactory perception has often been justified by applying a vision-based model to smell. A vision-based model of perception stresses that we have a phenomenal experience of ‘seeing through’ to individual objects located at a distance and at a particular place in a spatial field, and these individual objects are normally perceived as having edges and standing out as figures against a background. Since smell perception lacks most of these features, some philosophers like Scruton consider it uninformative about the external world and draw aesthetic consequences from this. Scruton has argued that vision is essentially cognitive and opened onto the objective world so that our attention seizes on its object, whereas in tasting and smelling one does not contemplate the object but only the experience derived from it.14 The smell of a cushion, for example, can exist without the cushion since smells linger after their cause is gone; thus for Scruton we don’t sniff through the smell volatiles to the thing that produced them.15

  • 16 Richardson 2013.
  • 17 Batty 2011: 169.
  • 18 Lycan 2014.

10Over recent years, several philosophers of perception have challenged the Kant/Scruton position. Louise Richardson, for example, stresses that our experience of an odor refers to something outside the body to the extent that the act of breathing brings odor-carrying air into the body from without, even though the air is not represented as at a distance, or as located at a specific point in space.16 Similarly, Clare Batty writes that although olfactory experience does not attach properties to individual things, we phenomenologically experience odor properties as if they were coming from something external to us.17 William Lycan has also long criticized the subjectivity claim and has recently proposed a two-level, account of smell that ties it to its sources.18 If Lycan, Batty, and Richardson are right about the relative objectivity of smell, despite their differences on details, the Kant-Scruton line of thinking about the aesthetic potential of odors and the sense of smell is based on a questionable philosophical claim.

  • 19 Sibley 2001: 224-225.
  • 20 Scruton 2009: 122.

11Moreover, Scruton’s specific application of the subjectivity claim to aesthetic experience seems to me intuitively wrongheaded. For example, a person can contemplate a lemon odor qua odor percept and compare it to the odor percept of strawberry, rather than simply contemplating their subjective experiences of each. And it seems equally reasonable that we can have intersubjective communication about such experiences rather than simply expressing personal preferences or prejudices as Kant claimed. We also need to remember that vision itself operates subjectively and individually at times. Both smell and vision seem capable of contributing to cognitive aspects of aesthetic experience, just as both can be marshaled in a subjective or interested fashion, as the well-known fallibility of eye-witness testimony shows in the case of vision. The information and meanings we derive from smell may indeed be more subjective, emotional and individually variable than most information from vision or hearing, yet, as Frank Sibley argued, the differences are relative rather than absolute.19 At one point, Scruton briefly entertains this possibility, only to reject it and insist on a radical distinction between objects of sight or hearing, whose meaning can be experienced directly and objects of smell that really acquire their meaning, he claims, only by the association of ideas.20

  • 21 Sweeney 2017: 172-180, Smith 2007: 55-56.

12Yet it seems to me that it may be possible to find meanings in certain works of olfactory art, not just by associating them with ideas from other contexts. In the case of the best perfumes, for example, one may appreciate the way the various notes complement each other and unfold over time without necessarily associating them with any external theme or context. Naturally, in order to discover the meanings in the perfume or in other works of olfactory art, we may need some knowledge of how such works are created, as well as some experience in appreciating them. Both Kevin Sweeney and Barry C. Smith have made similar arguments for the claim that taste qualities are in wines not just in the perception of the taster.21 Their arguments about the relative objectivity and the variable, yet intersubjective agreement about some aspects of wine tasting applies to works of olfactory arts works like those mentioned in the opening paragraph above. As Sibley argued, we may, indeed, more easily achieve agreement about visual or auditory properties than about olfactory properties, but that does not push the latter out of the realm of aesthetic discussion and judgment.

The empirical case for the cognitive capacity of smell

  • 22 Currie et al. 2014: 10-12, Lopes 2018: 16.

13Now I want to show that the intuitive arguments that the sense of smell has sufficient cognitive powers to support reflective aesthetic activity are also consistent with contemporary studies of the sense of smell both in the natural and human sciences. In taking this approach I am following the lead of those philosophers like Gregory Currie and Dominic Lopes who argue that most of our philosophical arguments need to be consistent with the best of current empirical knowledge.22 When I first started doing research on the issue of the cognitive powers of the sense of smell I felt certain that my positive intuitive position would find easy empirical confirmation. I was in for a rude awakening. If the status and the possibilities of odors and the sense of smell are controversial among philosophers, I found there are also disagreements among biologists, neuroscientists and psychologists on many aspects of the nature of smell and its powers, with some scientists holding a rather dim view of the cognitive capacity of the sense of smell.

  • 23 Shepherd 2012.
  • 24 Yeshurun, Sobel 2010: 223.
  • 25 Shiner 2020: 127-137.
  • 26 Ivi: 87-116.

14Before considering and answering those negative views, we need to note that there is in fact wide agreement among natural and social scientists and humanist scholars on a number of matters that suggest both the importance of sense of smell in human life and smell’s considerable intellectual powers. In biology, the rediscovery of the importance of smell began in the 1980s with the exploration of the dominant role of retronasal smell in the brain’s construction of flavor, i.e. up to 80% of what we experience as the flavor of our food actually comes from retronasal smell and not from taste buds alone.23 Neuroscience and psychology have since demonstrated that humans are orthonasally excellent at detecting olfactory changes in the environment and can quickly learn new smells in many contexts. For example, humans can detect as little as one part per billion of mercaptan, the chemical that is put into odorless natural gas to aid in discovering leaks.24 Several psychologists who study long-term memory have also confirmed the insight of Marcel Proust and other writers that smells have an exceptional power to evoke vivid and emotion-laden memories from childhood.25 At the same time that biology and psychology have been positively reappraising the powers of human smell, the new field of sensory history has demonstrated the crucial role that smell has played in the past and anthropologists have shown that smell still plays a pervasive role in many small-scale societies outside the West.26 And it is interesting to note, in the light of the recent Covid-19 pandemic, that although odors and the sense of smell long ago lost their once crucial role in medical diagnosis, not only has research discovered that anosmia can be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease, but the same may be true of Covid-19 when there are few other symptoms.

15Despite all this positive evidence of the importance of the sense of smell and its cognitive powers, there is another body of scientific evidence that shows there are severe limitations on smell’s cognitive abilities, evidence that, depending on how much weight it is given, could be interpreted as supporting the Kant-Scruton depreciation of the aesthetic potential of smell. In order to set aside the negative philosophical tradition on olfaction, we need to make sure we have given the empirical evidence against smell’s cognitive powers its full due. The first negative evidence I will discuss derives from biology and neuroscience: Whereas the primary brain centers of vision and hearing belong to the neocortex, the primary olfactory processing center lies in the lower part of the brain called the paleocortex because it developed earlier in the course of evolution and has only three layers compared to the larger neocortex which consist of six layers. What further complicates the question of smell’s cognitive capacity for supporting things like aesthetic judgments is that among the other brain units lying close to the primary olfactory unit (piriform cortex) in the paleocortex are those responsible for emotion (amygdala) and memory (hippocampus), traditionally lumped together with other small units and called the ‘limbic system’. The location of smell within the limbic system of the paleocortex or ‘old brain’ is one basis for some scholars thinking that smell may be a kind of atavistic leftover.

  • 27 Wilson et al. 2014: 277, Weiss, Secundo, Sobel 2014: 190.

16Yet the paleocortex also has innumerable reciprocal connections to the ‘higher’ neocortex. In the case of smell, there are two links from the primary odor-processing unit, the piriform cortex (PC) to the frontal area of the neocortex called the orbitofrontal cortex or OFC. One link from the smell processing center to the OFC is direct and has many fibers, the other link is thinner and indirect, and goes via the thalamus (vision, hearing, touch and taste inputs all go through the thalamus to reach the frontal cortex). The importance of the existence of dual links between the primary olfactory cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex is that the orbitofrontal cortex or OFC is the primary locus in the brain for such things as sensory integration, decision-making and reward evaluation, all of which have a cognitive dimension even if the OFC itself is not the primary locus of abstract reasoning.27

  • 28 Jacob 2011: 183.
  • 29 Gottfried, Zelano 2011: 139, Shepherd 2012: 110.

17Given these anatomical features of the brain’s olfactory processing system, some of the disagreements over the cognitive potential of our sense of smell, and consequently of smell’s potential for reflective aesthetic activity, derive from whether one focuses on the olfactory processing taking place in the paleocortex itself or whether one focuses on the neural connections up to the neocortex. Some scientists emphasize that odors must first access the more primitive areas closely connected to emotions and only later arrive at the higher areas of perception.28 Other scientists stress the direct connection from the piriform cortex to the frontal cortex above, among whose functions is decision-making, and where odor molecules are evaluated quickly.29

18Thus, the division of opinion on the extent of the neurological limitations on the sense of smell’s cognitive apparatus compared to those for vision and hearing, hardly amounts to a sweeping denial that humans could learn to use the information coming from the smell connections in the brain to make considered aesthetic judgments. But neuroanatomy alone won’t settle the issue of smell’s cognitive powers; we also have to consider how smell functions in human behavior. It turns out that many psychological studies have also provided evidence that could be interpreted as showing that smell’s limitations may be too severe to support aesthetic responses that go much beyond mere liking and disliking. This evidence can be grouped into four counts against the cognitive potential of the human sense of smell.

  • 30 Herz 2008: 16-18, 114-116.
  • 31 Stevenson, Attuquayefio 2013: 4.
  • 32 Yeshurun, Sobel 2010.
  • 33 Olofsson, Gottfried 2015.
  • 34 Köster, Møller, Mojet 2014.

19First, people’s odor associations tend to arise idiosyncratically, especially among Westerners, who receive practically no formal training of their sense of smell. One could argue, as Kant did, that many people have developed individual aversions or attractions that could easily skew any attempt at moving toward reasoned aesthetic discussion and evaluation. Moreover, there is even some variability in people’s basic olfactory equipment since, unlike vision where there are only three receptor types, there are over three hundred for smell and the number of active genes varies somewhat by individual. Second, and more damaging for smell’s cognitive standing, is evidence that smell has a much stronger connection with the emotions than vision or hearing, especially given the proximity of the olfactory processing unit (piriform cortex) to the emotion unit (amygdala) of the brain. In a typical psychology experiment concerned with smell and emotion, people are exposed to pictures or sounds of some object, along with the odors of the same kind of object, and, when asked which feels more emotional, a significantly greater percentage say the odors provoked more emotion.30 Another kind of evidence for the greater emotionality of smell than vision and hearing comes from experiments that show that untrained individuals more often use hedonic (pleasant/unpleasant) terms in ratings of odors over terms for specific odor qualities.31 A third characteristic implying that the sense of smell lacks much cognitive potential is the fact that laboratory studies have shown most people are poor at naming or describing smells. For example, most people are unable to name by smell alone the odors of between 20% and 50% of the household items they use regularly.32 One reason sometimes given for this failure, is what is often referred to as the poverty of language when it comes to odors. Whereas most languages have extensive and nuanced vocabularies for colors and sounds, the terms for smell are highly limited and most people end up just referring to odor sources or simple variations on the pleasant/unpleasant axis. Moreover, there may also be some underlying physiological reasons for naming failure.33 A fourth characteristic of smell compared to vision and hearing that bodes ill for a cognitive aesthetics of smell, is that for most people, smell seems to operate largely unconsciously. The average person pays little attention to odors, and when they attempt to summon up the memory or image of an odor they usually have great difficulty.34

  • 35 Stevenson, Attuquayefio 2013: 9.

20The psychologist Richard J. Stevenson and his colleague Tuki Attuquayefio have a general theory to explain all four of these deficits. They argue that the most parsimonious explanation of smell’s typical failures is that smell’s dominant characteristic is its cognitive weakness due to limited neocortical resources compared to other senses. As they explain, although the neocortex expanded in the course of evolution adding more cognitive powers to vision, hearing and touch, smell remained restricted to the paleocortex. As a result, it lacks the resources to form ideas to communicate both within the brain and between people.35

21Andreas Keller, who carefully reviews the scientific literature on smell in Philosophy of Olfactory Perception, seems at one point to embrace a similar view of smell as so emotional, hedonic, and tongue-tied, that it is impervious to reason. He opens his chapter on olfaction and cognition this way:

  • 36 Keller 2016: 117.

Olfaction is often considered the most animalistic and primitive of our senses. Odor stimuli induce desires, emotions and physiological responses that make us respond to certain smells in automatic ways. Reason is powerless to intervene.36

22If Stevenson and Keller are right, the outlook for a cognitively informed olfactory aesthetic experience looks dim. Whereas Kant and Darwin suggested that the human sense of smell is not worth cultivating, the theories we have just been considering cast doubt on whether it would even be possible to cultivate it to any significant degree. Does this mean that the negative tradition concerning odors and smell in art and aesthetics that reaches from Kant and Hegel to Scruton, Dutton and others today is right after all?

23Before we give up on the cognitive possibilities of smell, however, we need to remember that, as Sibley pointed out, we are not asking if smell (or gustatory taste) can equal the cognitive powers of vision and hearing. We are asking whether smell has enough cognitive resources to rise above purely emotional and hedonic preferences when needed and provide a basis for the kind of critical discussion of olfactory art works that Hume, for example, envisioned for more traditional arts like literature, painting or music. That suggests a next step, namely, to inquire whether or not the best critics of olfactory art and design works have the ability to adequately articulate and rationally justify their appreciations. Surely, an understanding of the aesthetic potential of any sensory mode should pay particular attention to the capacities and perspectives of those who, as Hume argued, show a combination of sensitivity, knowledge, comparison, and extensive practice, and whose “joint verdict” could be used as the criterion of correct aesthetic judgments. Following Hume’s lead (and remembering the crucial role that the sense of smell plays in the discernment of gustatory taste of things like wine which was one of Hume’s most telling examples), I believe we should turn to psychological studies of the best critics of those arts involving smell.

  • 37 Royet et al. 2013: 8.

24The critics I will discuss are trained perfumers since, like trained sommeliers and wine critics whose smell and taste abilities have been the subject of scientific studies, perfumers’ cognitive abilities with respect to smell have been studied by a number of neuroscientists. The particular experts who were the subjects of the studies that have been done on smell are professional perfumers who typically have undergone two to three years of rigorous training, followed by several years of apprenticeship. Of course, olfactory experts of any kind are small in number. It is estimated that there are some 500 professional perfumers worldwide and about 150,000 trained professionals in the wine industry. To date there have been some 50 empirical studies of wine professionals and a half-dozen of perfumers. Even so, many of the latter studies are worth considering since their results are consistent with the results of studies of experts in other areas such as athletics or music where scientists have compared professional and amateur performance.37 In the following paragraphs, I will take a quick look at three studies of olfactory expertise that have been done in the last decade and draw out these studies implications for the cognitive status of the sense of smell.

  • 38 Sezille et al. 2014.
  • 39 Ivi: 7.

25The language and hedonics issue has been addressed in a study done in 2014 by Caroline Sezille and her colleagues at the University of Lyon’s Neuroscience Center who compared the differences in linguistic descriptors used by professional perfumers and flavorists with those of trainee cooks, and untrained individuals. Each group was exposed to 20 odorants pretested to assure a wide hedonic range.38 Each individual in the experiment was given two tasks, first to rate the pleasantness of the odorant, and then to describe it as ‘precisely as possible’. Although the pleasantness ratings for all groups were similar, there were striking differences in the kinds of descriptors used. As in similar previous studies, the experts processed the odors more deeply on a semantic level, using few hedonic terms. Specifically, their descriptions were longer, more precise, and more consistent, as well as being semantically richer and more expressive than either the trainees or the untrained.39 Crucially, Seville and her colleagues’ study of perfumers and flavorists confirms several similar studies done with wine experts as well as the experience of specialists in brandy, beer, cheese, fish, and other fields where experts also tend to use analytic terms, and novices tend toward holistic and hedonic terms.

  • 40 Olofsson et al. 2012.
  • 41 Smith 2007: 55-56.

26The Seville study is also in line with neuroscience imaging studies that have questioned some researchers’ claim that all humans simply experience smell hedonically. Although hedonic evaluations are, indeed, all that many people can articulate of their initial response to an odor, Jonas Olofsson and colleagues have performed experiments on the temporal dynamics of olfactory response that question the primacy of the hedonic response. In their studies, most people first identify an odor quality, e.g. strawberry, then fractions of a second later make their hedonic judgment.40 These studies showing that genuine expertise focused on qualitative identification is possible in the realm of smell are consistent with the intuition that most educated people are able to distinguish their qualitative judgments in general from their purely hedonic ones. Barry C. Smith has forcefully argued a similar point about the informed judgments of wine experts. Even if inclinations of liking/disliking inevitably enter into experts’ judgments, experts are able to move deeper into understanding a particular wine’s quality whether they personally like the wine or not.41

  • 42 Delon-Martin et al. 2013.
  • 43 Frasnelli et al. 2010.

27The next two studies of olfactory experts that I want to consider offer evidence of smell’s capacity for cognitive cultivation based on neuroscience imaging of brain plasticity. The first plasticity study concerns what is called structural brain plasticity, i.e. changes at the anatomical level in the amount of gray-matter present in brain areas relevant to olfaction. Just as brain studies of higher performing musicians and athletes have indicated increased gray-matter in relevant motor areas of the brain, so a study by Delon-Martin and her colleagues in 2013 detected a larger gray-matter volume in perfumers’ olfactory processing areas than in the brains of novices. Moreover, the greater amount of gray matter was positively correlated with age and experience in the professional perfumers but negatively correlated with age in control subjects.42 These results are also consistent with the studies of people suffering from late on-set anosmia or hyposmia, whose brains show gray-matter atrophy in olfactory-related areas. The studies also agree with the results of the 2010 study by Frasnelli and colleagues showing a correlation of olfactory bulb volume with higher identification scores and larger orbitofrontal cortex volume with better discrimination performances.43 Taken together with these other studies, the Delon-Martin demonstration of gray-matter increase correlating with experience in perfume experts provides strong evidence that the sense of smell can indeed be cultivated to a high degree and that such abilities can be improved and maintained.

  • 44 Plailly, Delon-Martin, Royet 2012.

28Equally impressive results regarding the cultivation of olfactory expertise come from a 2012 study of what is called functional brain plasticity, namely, changes in the activity levels of relevant brain areas with respect to odor imagery. Specifically, Jane Plailly and her colleagues’ study of expert’s functional brain plasticity, offers strong confirmation that olfactory mental imagery can reactivate memory traces within the primary olfactory processing areas, and do so much better among experts than non-experts. The study involved 14 beginning perfumery students who had completed 2 years of training and 14 experienced perfumes, most of them well known in the profession, who had between 5 and 35 years of experience. The experiment was divided into two parts: in the first part each subject was exposed to 20 chemicals from the list of 300 that student perfumers are expected to learn; in the second phase, a series of 20 chemical names were flashed in random order on a screen and the subjects were asked to form a mental image of the smell if they could. Roughly 92% of both students and professionals claimed to have formed images.44

  • 45 Ibidem.

29During the initial perception phase, both students and professionals showed similar activation of the relevant areas of the piriform cortex. But during the imagery sessions, there were striking differences between the two groups. The experienced professionals could quickly imagine most odors, whereas students had difficulty with the task and could only imagine odors by a deliberate effort.45 Moreover, the fMRI recordings showed markedly lower levels of activity in the olfactory processing areas of the professionals’ brains compared to the students. A lower level of activity means that the professionals had to expend less effort than the students.

  • 46 Lotze et al. 2003.
  • 47 Plailly, Delon-Martin, Royet 2012.

30These results from experienced perfumers are consistent with brain studies of professional musicians and golfers that have shown similar kinds of functional brain activity decreases associated with performance gains. Researchers who have done brain studies on musicians have concluded that over time, professionals learn to control their movements more or less automatically, resulting in less cortical activity in motor areas, thereby freeing up additional brain resources for enhanced performance.46 Similarly, Plailly concludes that professional perfumers gradually develop more efficient strategies in their field, allowing them to free up additional resources for artistic aspects of their work, such as creating new fragrances.47

  • 48 Olofsson, Gottfried 2015: 318-319.
  • 49 Stevenson, Attuquayefio 2013: 9.

31If we put together the results of these recent studies of olfactory expertise – the expert’s superior naming and descriptive ability, the structural/anatomical increase of gray-matter in olfactory areas, and the functional brain activity decrease in those same areas and also keep in mind that these results are consistent with the results of similar studies in other domains such as music or athletics, we must grant that there is now beginning to be solid neurological evidence that the cognitive powers of the human sense of smell are capable of being cultivated to a high degree. Even those neuroscientists like Olofsson and Gottfried, who showed that the brain circuitry for smell has more limited connections with language areas than it does for vision, accept the fact that studies like that of Plailly and colleagues show that the olfactory neural processing limitations typical of the general public can be overcome through training and practice, leading to expertise that far exceeds the performance of the typical subjects of most psychological experiments.48 Moreover, R.L. Stevenson, whose dim view of smell’s cognitive resources we cited earlier, has also accepted the possibility that studies like Plailly’s show that practice can produce increases in neocortical processing power for smell sufficient to make what may be unconscious in naïve participants into conscious achievements for experts.49

32Of course, my appeal to recent studies of smell experts is unlikely to convince everyone who supports the negative philosophical tradition regarding smell’s lack of cognitive power. The skeptic will emphasize the small number of professional perfumers in the world and the small number of studies of them compared to the critical mass of studies of non-experts that show the average person is unconscious of the odors around them, is heavily influenced by emotion, tends to make simplistic hedonic judgments, and is unable to identify and name most odors. Given Andreas Keller’s forceful assertion of smell’s strong connection to the emotions that we cited earlier, one might think that he would support the skeptics, but that turns out not to be the case.

  • 50 Keller 2016: 117.
  • 51 Ivi: 117-124.
  • 52 Ivi: 177-178.

33In fact, because Keller embraces a general understanding of the brain as a complex of overlapping networks, he is ready to recognize a modest role for cognition in the sense of smell. He notes that olfaction has reciprocal connections with the other senses and higher and cognitive processes so that heavy feed-back from higher brain areas provides the neural correlates for such things as the cognitive penetration of smell.50 Keller bases his explanation of various levels of cognitive awareness attached to smell on the general phenomenon of attention. Thus, if we assume that all our sensory modalities have evolved in order to guide behavior, it makes sense that most of the time we do not consciously attend to the odors around us. In most situations, the fact that we register odors in the brain without consciously noticing them, Keller says, guides us toward immediate actions: inhale/hold the breath, swallow/spit out, approach/avoid, stay/go.51 I assume that these are the situations Keller had in mind when he wrote the passage on the emotional hedonics of smell that we quoted above, in which he speaks of automatic responses where reason is powerless to intervene. But in addition to such situations prompting immediate binary responses, Keller suggests there are other situations in which we may have time to choose among several relevant behaviors, such as when we are writing a wine review, or trying to locate a gas leak in a school building. Then, rather than an immediate emotional reaction, there can be conscious attending to olfactory qualities.52 Thus, on the issue of whether the human sense of smell has enough cognitive and linguistic resources to support intelligent aesthetic creation and discussion, even on Keller’s account the answer should be a cautious ‘yes’.

  • 53 Barwich 2020: 267-275.
  • 54 Ivi: 298-300.

34A.S. Barwich, in her masterful survey of recent olfactory research, Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind, goes even farther than Keller in affirming the cognitive potential of the sense of smell. Based on the current understanding of the olfactory pathway among neuroscientists, she argues that olfactory coding is a temporal, nonlinear and distributed one that produces a flexibly underdetermined outcome suited to the primary function of smell, which, unlike vision, is not to deliver a stable representation of objects, but to support the predictive evaluation of constantly changing environmental differences as a guide for decision-making.53 Barwich goes on to conclude that many of what appear to be major cognitive weaknesses of smell, such as difficulties in locating and naming, and above all, individual variations in responses, are in fact necessary features of olfaction that enable smell to do its job. Most importantly for our concern with cognitive potential, she points out that variability in response to the same molecule is not an indication that the human sense of smell is hopelessly subjective and idiosyncratic. Rather, these variations are themselves objectively measurable effects of underlying causal features of the way the olfactory system works. This is especially true of the kind of experiments in which an untrained subject, exposed to a single odor out of context, fails to correctly identify and name its source. The subject’s failure is not proof that smells are subjective feelings, but a reflection of the coding and computational processes of the olfactory system that result from top-down influences based on context, memory, and anticipation.54


35When we add the arguments of Keller and Barwich in favor of the cognitive potential of smell, to the evidence from studies of experts in perfumery and wine, and to the evidence mentioned earlier showing that even untrained people are excellent at some aspects of detection, discrimination, and learning, I believe we have strong scientific support for the belief that smell can be cultivated to a degree sufficient for sophisticated artistic creation and critical aesthetic reflection. The conclusion that the sense of smell is cognitively much stronger than the mainstream Western intellectual tradition has been willing to admit may seem like a modest result for such an extensive discussion of the empirical and theoretical work on the neuroscience and behavioral psychology of smell. But given the long negative intellectual tradition in the West of either ignoring or disparaging the sense of smell and given a number of philosophers’ denial of the artistic and aesthetic potential of smell based on purely intuitive arguments, it has seemed important to consider the strongest empirical evidence against the cognitive potential of smell before examining other evidence that suggests smell can in fact be cultivated for artistic creation and aesthetic reflection. If I am right, the way is now open for beginning to develop an aesthetics of smell and the olfactory arts and construct a philosophical basis for the appreciation various kinds of smell infused art works like those mentioned at the beginning of this article. As a largely uncharted territory, the olfactory arts raise innumerable issues that need to be addressed, from defining criteria for inclusion in the category ‘olfactory art’ to questions of interpretation and criticism and even such practical issues such as how best to present and conserve art works involving something so evanescent as odors. My hope is that readers of this essay will want to join in exploring that territory.

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Barwich, A.S. 2017, Up the nose of the beholder? Aesthetic perception in olfaction as a decision-making process, “New Ideas in Psychology”, 47: 157-165.

2020, Smellosophy: How the Nose Talks to the Mind, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Batty, C. 2011, Smelling lessons, “Philosophical Studies”, 153: 161-174.

Beardsley, M. 1958, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World.

Brady, E. 2005, Sniffing and Savoring: The Aesthetics of Smells and Tastes, in A. Light, J.M. Smith (eds), The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, New York, Columbia University Press: 177-193.

Calvino, I. 1988, Under the Jaguar Sun, trans. by W. Weaver, New York, Harcourt Brace.

Currie, G. et al. 2014, Aesthetics and the Sciences of the Mind, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Darwin, C. 1981, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Delon-Martin, C. et al. 2013, Perfumers expertise induces structural reorganization in olfactory brain regions, “Neuroimage”, 68: 55-62.

Dowling, C. 2010, The aesthetics of daily life, “British Journal of Aesthetics”, 50: 226-38.

Dutton, D. 2009, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, New York, Bloomsbury.

Feagin, S. 2018, Olfaction and space in the theater, “British Journal of Aesthetics”, 58: 131-146.

Forsey, J 2013, The Aesthetics of Design, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Frasnelli, J. et al. 2010, Neuroanatomical correlates of olfactory performance, “Experimental Brain Research”, 201: 1-11.

Freud, S. 1961, Civilization and its Discontents, New York, Norton.

Gardner, H. 1993, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, New York, Basic Books.

Gottfried, J., Zelano, C. 2011, The value of identity: Olfactory notes on orbitofrontal cortex function, “Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences”, 1239: 138-148.

Hegel, G.W.F. 1975, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Henshaw, V. et al. 2018, Designing with Smell: Practices, Techniques, and Challenges, New York, Routledge.

Herz, R. 2008, The Scent of Desire Discovering our Enigmatic Sense of Smell, New York, Harper.

Hsu, L.H. 2020, The Smell of Risk: Environmental Disparities and Olfactory Aesthetics, New York, New York University Press.

Jacob, T. 2011, The science of taste and smell, in F. Bacci, D. Melcher (eds), Art and the Senses, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Jaquet, C. 2010, Philosophie de l’odorat, Paris, PUF.

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Keller, A. 2016, Philosophy of Olfactory Perception, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Köster, E.G., Møller, P., Mojet, J. 2014, A misfit theory of spontaneous conscious odor perception (MITSCOP): Reflections on the role and function of odor memory in everyday life, “Frontiers in Psychology”, 5: 1-12.

Laing, D., Livermore, A. 1996, Influence of training and experience on the perception of multicomponent odor mixtures, “Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance”, 22: 267-277.

Lopes, D. 2018, Aesthetics on the Edge: Where Philosophy Meets the Human Sciences, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Lotze, M. et al. 2003, The musician’s brain: Functional imaging of amateurs and professionals during performance and imagery, “NeuroImage”, 20: 1817-129.

Lycan, W.G. 2014, The Intentionality of Smell, “Frontiers in Psychology”, 5: 436-437.

Olofsson, J. et al. 2012, A time-based account of the perception of odor objects and valences, “Psychological Science”, 23: 1224-1232.

Olofsson, J., Gottfried, J. 2015, The muted sense: Neurocognitive limitations of olfactory language, “Trends in Cognitive Sciences”, 19: 314-321.

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Royet, J.-P. et al. 2013, The impact of expertise in olfaction, “Frontiers in Psychology”, 4: 1-11.

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1 The major book-length exceptions are Jaquet 2010 and Hsu 2020. Some useful articles include: Barwich 2017, Brady 2005, Feagin 2018, Sibley 2001, Tafalla 2013.

2 Hegel 1975: 38, Scruton 2009: 122.

3 Kant 2012: 66-67.

4 Kant 1987: 145.

5 Scruton 2009: 122, Dutton 2009: 207-212.

6 Parsons, Carlson 2008: 167-95, Dowling 2010: 226-238, Forsey 2013: 209-210.

7 Darwin 1981: 24, Freud 1961: 46, 53.

8 Gardner 1993: 61, Calvino 1988: 65-83.

9 Beardsley 1958: 99.

10 Scruton 2009: 162.

11 Dutton 2009: 212.

12 Sibley 2001: 228.

13 Jaquet 2010: 232.

14 Scruton 1979: 114.

15 Scruton 2009: 121.

16 Richardson 2013.

17 Batty 2011: 169.

18 Lycan 2014.

19 Sibley 2001: 224-225.

20 Scruton 2009: 122.

21 Sweeney 2017: 172-180, Smith 2007: 55-56.

22 Currie et al. 2014: 10-12, Lopes 2018: 16.

23 Shepherd 2012.

24 Yeshurun, Sobel 2010: 223.

25 Shiner 2020: 127-137.

26 Ivi: 87-116.

27 Wilson et al. 2014: 277, Weiss, Secundo, Sobel 2014: 190.

28 Jacob 2011: 183.

29 Gottfried, Zelano 2011: 139, Shepherd 2012: 110.

30 Herz 2008: 16-18, 114-116.

31 Stevenson, Attuquayefio 2013: 4.

32 Yeshurun, Sobel 2010.

33 Olofsson, Gottfried 2015.

34 Köster, Møller, Mojet 2014.

35 Stevenson, Attuquayefio 2013: 9.

36 Keller 2016: 117.

37 Royet et al. 2013: 8.

38 Sezille et al. 2014.

39 Ivi: 7.

40 Olofsson et al. 2012.

41 Smith 2007: 55-56.

42 Delon-Martin et al. 2013.

43 Frasnelli et al. 2010.

44 Plailly, Delon-Martin, Royet 2012.

45 Ibidem.

46 Lotze et al. 2003.

47 Plailly, Delon-Martin, Royet 2012.

48 Olofsson, Gottfried 2015: 318-319.

49 Stevenson, Attuquayefio 2013: 9.

50 Keller 2016: 117.

51 Ivi: 117-124.

52 Ivi: 177-178.

53 Barwich 2020: 267-275.

54 Ivi: 298-300.

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Larry Shiner, «Opening the Way for an Olfactory Aesthetics: Smell’s Cognitive Powers»Rivista di estetica, 78 | 2021, 8-26.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Larry Shiner, «Opening the Way for an Olfactory Aesthetics: Smell’s Cognitive Powers»Rivista di estetica [Online], 78 | 2021, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 17 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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