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Why Are Smells So Difficult to Describe in Words?

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As a part of its What’s Up With That? series, Wired breaks down why it’s so challenging to verbalize smells:

Recently, researchers have gained some interesting insights into this phenomenon. One new study points to a communication breakdown between the brain’s olfactory and language systems. At the same time, linguists working with indigenous populations in Southeast Asia have reported new findings that challenge the notion that all people are equally bad at describing smells. The difficulty in describing a scent, these researchers say, depends on what language you speak.

Psychologists have consistently found that people without any special training can correctly identify common odors like coffee or peanut butter, only about half the time. If someone performed that poorly on a test that required them to identify common objects by sight, they’d get a referral to see a neurologist, says Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University. “It’s almost like we have a neurological deficit for naming smells.”

Read more.


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