Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Inside the Olfactory Mind of Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin is a visual thinker empowered by autism. It's why she's been able to devise solutions for the humane treatment of farm animals while evangelizing an important neuroscientific truth; there are many styles of thinking, all of which deserve consideration. Grandin's insight is particularly evident when she describes the sensory mind of a dog:

 “…An animal is a sensory-based thinker, not verbal -- thinks in pictures, thinks in sounds, thinks in smells. Think about how much information there is there on the local fire hydrant. He knows who's been there, when they were there. Are they friend or foe? Is there anybody he can go mate with? There's a ton of information on that fire hydrant. It's all very detailed information…” TempleGrandin, TED, 2010

So how does a visual thinker like Grandin "see" her sense of smell? Her answers to the Glass Petal Smoke "Sensory Questionnaire" make it very clear.

1.  What does your sense of smell mean to you?
I love my favorite food smells. Since vision is my dominant sense, I see a picture of the food in my mind before I smell it.

2.  What are some of your strongest scent memories?
I remember the pleasant Sunday smells from the fireplace in my grandfather’s living room. 

3.  What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking &/or your environment)?
New mown hay. Steak on the grill.

4.  Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?
New plastic.

5.  Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.
Baking cookies.

6.  What smells do you most dislike?

7.  What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?
Aged cheese.

8.  What mundane smells inspire you?
None. Vision is my dominant sense.

9. What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
Cooking marshmallows on a campfire.

10.  What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?
Grilled cheese sandwiches; in elementary school they were my favorite lunch.

11.  What fragrance(s) remind you of growing up?
Aunt Bella’s perfume.

12.  What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?
Ocean smell. Reminds me of looking for shells at the beach when I was a child.

13.  Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.
[Left blank]

"Inside the Olfactory Mind" is a series on Glass Petal Smoke designed to make the sense of smell more tangible; to gourmands, perfume lovers and the curious. Smells may be invisible, but the images we associate with aroma immediately come to mind via memory. Feelings follow, and if we are not hindered by negative associations or fear of self expression, we can access words to describe what we sense. This process is specific to olfaction because the sense of smell is primarily a protective sense that becomes pleasurable when danger is not attached to what we are smelling (smoke, fire, rotten food, smell of death, etc.).

Inner vision as it relates to memory is an important part of olfactory perception, but it is often overshadowed by emotion. Vision without the prejudice of personal/social likes and dislikes allows one to sense an object outside preconceived notions. The first step in evaluating an aroma is getting yourself out of the way. "Neuronormals" (those not on the autistic spectrum) who relate strongly to olfaction can learn a lot from Temple Grandin when it comes to valuing their sense of smell and using it assess stimuli objectively; for problem solving or pleasure.

Image Credits:
Image of Dr. Temple Grandin from Colorado State University.

Image of "Steaks on a Grill" from PD Photo. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Photo of "Fireplace" by Ryan Mahle via Creative Commons. 

Image of "Making Hay"  by Bob Trevaskas. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Image of cookies on a cooling rack by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.

Image of "Volatile Vinyl from the Center for Health Justice' article on the smell of new plastic.

Image of the Stinky Cheese man from The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Sciezcka and Lane Smith. Great book (and Caldecott Honor award winner).

If you like the eye chart image in this post you can make one by clicking here.

Image of a young girl toasting marshmallows at a campfire by photographer Jill Reger. Rights reserved by the photographer.

Image of Jo Stafford in her dressing room by Bill Gottlieb. Note all the classic perfume bottles. Part of a collection of images from The Library of Congress.

Image of beach in Wellfleet by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.