cover image Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind

Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind

A.S. Barwich. Harvard Univ., $35 (372p) ISBN 978-0-674-98369-4

Barwich, a neurobiologist and professor of history and the philosophy of science at Indiana University, delivers “an unapologetic declaration of love to olfaction” in this intriguing but somewhat abstruse debut. While interviewing scores of researchers, she attempts to make their findings accessible to lay readers by centering her discussion on the general questions of “what does the nose tell the brain, and how does the brain understand it?” Barwich explains that the brain processes odors differently than it does visual stimuli, and argues that science has been guilty of “sensory chauvinism,” in using vision as the model for how all the other senses work. In fact, she proposes, odor processing might be the better model, given that vision evolved relatively late among the senses (which, she tantalizingly suggests, may number more than five; scientists have hypothesized the existence of as many as 27). Unfortunately, her work oscillates between understandable ideas—for instance, comparing the brain’s odor processing to encryption devices such as the WWII-era Enigma machine—and intimidating terminology (“your brain depicts transient information patterns.... without a superimposed matrix of chemical classes to accommodate for countless molecular permutations”). Despite the fascinating data and concepts presented, the neuroscience Barich discusses is often overly complex and thus not likely to be fully accessible to the wide audience aimed for. (July)