Human olfaction at the intersection of language, culture and biology
22-23 June 2017
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics Nijmegen, the Netherlands

There is a long tradition of under-estimating the sense of smell, and the information it provides. This long-standing picture of olfaction is being challenged today from a variety of directions. Previous estimates held that humans could only distinguish 10,000 odors, but this estimate has been revised to more than 1,000,000,000,000. Great strides have also been made in unlocking the perceptual bases of olfactory discrimination and categorization. Researchers are now able to predict both behavioral and neural activity in response to novel odors. Cross-cultural data from communities across the globe open up yet new vistas. Speakers of Jahai, Maniq, Seri, and others, have elaborate dedicated odor lexicons and name smells with apparent ease. Smell language is tightly connected with cultural practices, be it among speakers of olfactory languages, or within expert populations in the West. Specialist communities of wine experts and herb vendors help elucidate the important role experience can play on our olfactory sense, while special populations such as synesthetes and anosmics challenge our understanding further.

This conference brings together world-leading scientists and scholars to explore human olfaction from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Funded by: NWO The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research

Hosted by: Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands & Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands


We invite submission across disciplines to submit for presentation of a poster on the topic of human olfaction. Abstracts may not exceed 500 words. Please send abstracts to the following email address ( with the title “Human Olfaction Conference”. In the body of the email, please include the following: the title, author’s name(s), author’s affiliation(s), email address where you wish to be contacted, and attach the abstract as a Word file. The deadline for submitting abstracts has been extended until 31st March 2017. Notice of acceptance will follow shortly thereafter.


9.00  Welcome and Introduction ASIFA MAJID
9.15  Language lightning session Discussant BARRY SMITH


10.45  Political aromatics, fragrant fame & the classification of odors in early India JAMES MCHUGH
11.30  Functions of the olfactory system – What can be learned from people without a sense of smell THOMAS HUMMEL

12.15 LUNCH

1.45 Odor-evoked episodic memory JANE PLAILLY
2.30 Memory lightning session Discussant MARIA LARSSON


4.45 – 6.30 Posters & Drinks
7.00 Conference Dinner RESTAURANT MI BARRIO


9.00 Perception as seen through the nose ANDREAS KELLER
9.45 Odor consciousness and awareness lightning session Discussant KEITH WILSON


11.15 Olfactory artists as researchers
Contemporary art as a realm for experiments in aromatic knowledge JIM DROBNICK

12.00 LUNCH

1.30 Can we communicate about smells using sounds and colours? OPHELIA DEROY 
2.15 Crossmodal lightning session Discussant JOHAN LUNDSTRÖM


3.45 Cross-cultural approaches to chemical communication in humans – New perspectives
4.30 The evolutionary tuning of human olfaction and the sensory inequities of the
modern world 

5.15 – 5.30 CLOSING REMARKS 


Political aromatics, fragrant fame, and the classification of odors in early India 

Sanskrit texts from ancient and medieval India reveal a scholarly obsession with classification and analysis. This provides us with a detailed record of reflection on smell from a pre-modern, non-western, and highly literate culture—and from a culture where people paid considerable attention to odors and perfumery. In this talk I shall consider several such early Indian understandings of smell. Philosophical texts grappled with how to classify smell, starting with an extensive typology of odors and eventually settling on a very simple one. Perfumery texts classify aromatics using a metaphor of statecraft. Literary texts associate odors, not with memory, but with formidable affective powers. I shall also discuss some of my new discoveries on how “wine talk” is represented in early Indic literary sources. I shall then consider whether these various representations of odor informed or presuppose understandings of smell in other genres and contexts. Building on all these case studies, I also discuss some general methodological problems we encounter in dealing with ancient texts on odors and aromatics. I also consider how we might go about historicizing Indian ideas about odor, and what we might hope to learn by doing so.


Functions of the olfactory system – what can be learned from people without a sense of smell

Isolated congenital anosmia (ICA) is characterized by the lack of the sense of smell since birth in otherwise healthy people. Although this phenomenon is known among clinicians, there is only little knowledge about how these people cope with this serious handicap. Questionnaires of 32 patients with ICA (aged 18-46 years) were analyzed. ICA was diagnosed using detailed medical history, psychophysical examination, electrophysical measurements, and magnetic resonance imaging. 36 healthy participants (aged 18-50 years) served as controls.  The smell disorder was noted first at the age of 11 years; mean age at the medical diagnosis was 20 years. About one-third of the patients avoid talking about the disorder. If they could, many of them would like to smell food (35%), perfume (23%), their spouse (16%), or “nature” (12%).  Both groups did not differ significantly in weight, height, Body Mass Index, or eating behavior. ICA- patients reported more household accidents than healthy controls. ICA-patients also reported more worries about social situations than controls.  There was no significant difference between both groups in the partnership status or satisfaction with their partnership. However, ICA-patients reported to have had significantly less sexual partners than controls.  Finally, ICA-patients exhibited higher scores in the Depression Inventory compared to controls. Overall differences between the two groups are relatively subtle. ICA seems to be a handicap patients can cope with very well.


Odor-evoked episodic memory 

Human episodic memory is the long-term memory process that enables one to mentally and consciously relive specific, personal events from the past. Odors are well known to be particularly powerful memory cues in humans. I will present a project that aims at investigating the cognitive processes and the neural bases of odor-evoked episodic retrieval in humans. A novel behavioral task has been designed to study in a controlled way the memory of complex episodes comprising unfamiliar odors (What), localized spatially (Where), within a visual context (Which context). From this approach, we demonstrate that the episodic retrieval is mainly based on recollection processes, and that emotion carried by odors, whatever its valence, promotes accurate episodic retrieval. Behavioral data also suggest that the incorporation of this task into dream report does not influence the subsequent memory of this task (Plailly et al in preparation). Moreover, fMRI data suggest that episodic odor memory is underpinned by a distributed network and modularity analyses show that neural interactions within this network depends on memory accuracy, with the piriform cortex being a crucial node.


To be announced


Perception as seen through the nose

Philosophy of perception has historically been focused almost exclusively on visual perception. This visuocentrism has distorted our understanding of what perception is.  One of the major differences between olfaction and vision is that the olfactory perceptual space is much more complex than the perceptual color space. In contrast, the spatial structure of olfactory perception is severely impoverished compared to other modalities. A consequence of this impoverished spatial structure is that object-based accounts of perception cannot be applied to olfaction; the common criteria for objecthood in vision fail to pick out olfactory objects. Odor perception is not the perception of objects but of “object-less” perceptual properties. Another consequential difference is that emotional processes have privileged access to olfactory information whereas the connection between olfaction and analytic systems is weak. The strong connection between olfaction and emotional processes reflects a shared evolutionary history and neuroanatomy. Perceptual systems coevolved with the cognitive systems that process perceptual information, thereby individually shaping each connection between perceptual and cognitive processes. These and other differences between vision and olfaction dramatically illustrate that conclusions from the study of one modality do not generalize to other modalities. An olfaction-based philosophy of perception would be very different from the familiar version based on visual perception.


Olfactory artists as researchers: Contemporary art as a realm for experiments in aromatic knowledge 

Artists engaging with olfaction typically occupy several roles. Many have experience as chemists, scientists, designers, anthropologists and perfumers besides being trained in art. Such interdisciplinarity is strategic, for it helps to be able to draw from a range of fields to build a sufficient knowledge base about the sense of smell. Unlike modernist artists who restricted themselves to a single medium in order to concentrate on its particular characteristics, contemporary artists adopt an array of materials, media and methods in order to conduct their work about olfaction, such as synthesizing scents, utilizing new smell technologies, collaborating in teams, and directly involving the noses and participation of visitors.
This talk considers how olfactory artists engage the practice of the artist-researcher. What does it mean to employ art as a method of investigation? How can olfactory art stimulate conscious attention to smell’s significance in experience and society? Given the development of olfactory art as a genre of artistic practice, I will discuss how works featuring scent function in a hybrid way to perform both as aesthetic experiences and as quasi-experiments in audience reception. By examining recent olfactory artworks, this talk explores how artists generate knowledge about the potential and implications of smell.


Cross-cultural approaches to chemical communication in humans: new perspectives

Social communication is one of the major functions of olfaction, but many aspects of this function remain a mystery in humans. Body odors appear to be extremely important in human interpersonal relationships, as shown by the amount of energy we spend every day to control our own “olfactory image” but also by the serious consequences of olfactory loss on the quality of social interactions. In this talk, I will try to build bridges between two areas of research, which are the study of inter-individual (and more specifically, cultural) differences in human olfaction and the study of social communication through body odors. I will present some of my work about the role of human body odors in person perception and human attractiveness (single-culture approach) and draw a picture of the current knowledge and gaps in this area. Then, I will present a set of studies using cross-cultural approaches to odor-related feelings and attention to relevant odors of our environment, with a particular focus on aspects related with people’s odor. Finally, my aim will be to draw some perspectives of research combining the two approaches presented above, and to identify specific directions where cross-cultural comparisons could usefully complement our understanding of how body odors influence human social interactions.


Can we communicate about smells using sounds and colours? 

Several streams of research have shown that individuals consistently pair certain smells with specific auditory or visual dimensions, for instance pitch or colour : The smell of caramel is associated to low pitch sounds, and bergamot smell to orange or yellow shades. What is not clear however is whether these shared correspondences have a communicative value in everyday contexts, and whether some work better than others and in which contexts. Certainly using a correspondence seem to have less communicative value too that providing a literal description of an olfactory attribute, or naming the source of the smell, which raises an even more important question : Why should we even choose to resort to correspondence to communicate about smells? This talk will cast new lights on both the empirical and theoretical aspects of these questions.


The evolutionary tuning of human olfaction and the sensory inequities of the modern world 

Olfaction plays a critical role in gathering information about the physical and social environments. Our modern noses are the result of a long process of adaptation to varying ecological settings in evolutionary history. But, how well do our noses function in modern settings? The focus of this talk is to present data on the evolutionary ecological parameters that tuned olfaction within the genus Homo and also to explore how olfaction operates today. The first part explores the family evolutionary situation through reconstructed noses of extinct relatives in the genus Homo (Neandertal and Denisova). Do members of the genus share an olfactory repertoire that reflects our diverse global adaptations or do humans have a specific repertoire due to our unique subsistence strategies. The second part of the talk looks to the future of smell by exploring how modern lifestyles and anthropogenic environmental change are damaging our smell-ability. What are we losing when we lose our sense of smell and are some at greater risk than others? Losing the sense of smell results in physical, mental and social problems. In modern stratified societies, not everyone has equal access to positive smell-scapes and that results in sensory inequities. We are the long tail of an evolutionary process that is currently in jeopardy.


Academic €100 | Student and public €50 | Industry  €250

The conference dinner will take place on Thursday June 22nd at Restaurant Mi Barrio. Costs will be €30 on top of the conference fee.

Registration fee waivers for undergraduate and graduate students are available. Please indicate your interest in a registration fee waiver when submitting your abstract. Waivers will be distributed at the discretion of the scientific organisers during abstract review. If you are awarded a registration fee waiver you will be notified after the abstract review has been completed and asked to confirm your acceptance.




A confirmation email will be sent to your email address after registration. This email will also contain payment details. Bank details are displayed below.

Account name: Stg. KU –Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen FDL
Address: Postbus 9103, 6500 HD, NIJMEGEN, the Netherlands
IBAN: NL62INGB0002333985
Specification: 2380520

If you have further questions please email 


The closest airport to Nijmegen is Schiphol with direct trains to Nijmegen every half hour or so. Depending on your point of origin you may alternatively find convenient international flights into Eindhoven or Weeze airports, which also have reasonably good bus/train connections. More specific directions can be found here.


There are several hotels and bed & breakfasts in Nijmegen, for example: Bed & Breakfast de Prince, Hotel Credible, Amrâth Hotel Belvoir, and Van der Valk Hotel in Nijmegen Lent (Nijmegen Lent is outside the city center, but it is well connected by train and bus; the journey to the conference venue is approximately 30 minutes, see the online public transport journey planner). Further accommodation suggestions can be found here.