Monday, February 5, 2018

Frontier Psychophysics: The Prequel

Image ©Avery Gilbert

 When I moved to Colorado in mid-2015, it occurred to me that there were two local olfactory opportunities that might be commercialized. One was cow manure, the other was pot.

When the wind is right, the unmistakable scent of manure wafts over Fort Collins from large-scale cattle feedlots many miles to the east and south of town. Having grown up in California’s Central Valley, the smell of manure is, to me, familiar and not particularly disagreeable. But immediately downwind of feedlots it can be pretty intense, and the cattle industry is interested in cost-effective ways to reduce it. I did a literature search and concluded that the problem has not been adequately attacked from my point of view, i.e., as a the fragrance industry would tackle a new malodor issue. I think a combined chemical and psychophysical approach could yield commercial innovations.

But the more alluring opportunity proved to be pot, newly legal in Colorado for recreational use and an industry that is growing at an exponential rate. I sniffed my way through the wares of local dispensaries and was amazed at the enormous olfactory range on display. Some strains reeked of grapefruit, others were dense and funky. Some were almost cheesy, others mildly hay-like or even piney. From a fragrance standpoint, there is at least as much going on in weed as there is in wine, beer, coffee, or tea.

But there’s a big difference. Those other agricultural products have a long history of aesthetic appreciation. They have fully developed olfactory lexicons (think, for example, of the U.C. Davis Wine Aroma Wheel). And they have chemical standards and training programs.

Cannabis, on the other hand, maintains an outdated, underground feel. Sure, there are aficionados who can be eloquent in describing the aroma of a given strain. But there is no organized, empirically-based, agreed-upon basis for describing the scent of weed. For example, in the various “Cannabis Cup” competitions, smell is one of many dimensions on which a strain is judged, but as far as I can tell there are no specific criteria for evaluating a sample’s smell. If sheep or chickens were judged that subjectively at the county fair, there would be a riot in the livestock pavilion.

I made some inquiries at the local campus, Colorado State University. I had excellent discussions about possible collaborations with faculty in the psychology and chemistry departments. The conclusion was always the same: cannabis research was impossible. Or to be more precise, a university that takes even one dollar of federal funding is obliged to play by federal rules. That means that in order to do cannabis research, one needs a DEA license to hold and handle the drug. One can use only federal money (NIH, NSF, etc.) to carry out the research—no private or corporate funding. And finally, and most disheartening, one can only use cannabis grown at the officially approved federal plantation in Mississippi. (This product is frequently lampooned as being a throwback to 1970s era weed—the low potency, twiggy, seedy, stuff that one “cleaned” on an LP cover before rolling into a doobie.)

By this point I had landed on a simple idea—to treat locally available cannabis strains as a just another consumer product. I would do routine sensory research to characterize the relevant odor descriptors, and see whether consumers could tell one strain from another based on smell.

That was my original idea. To make it happen, I had to blaze my own trail. I found an angel investor and created a new company: Headspace Sensory LLC. I wrote an entire research plan and got it approved by an independent institutional review board. I found an excellent collaborator in Joseph DiVerdi, a Colorado State chemistry professor with an interest in cannabis and his own private lab. With his help I found a genial landlord willing to rent me a couple of rooms perfect for sniff testing.

All the elements were in place. But I still needed to find volunteer sniffers. That would prove harder than I had imagined.

“A Very Distinct Smell”

“Marijawana’s bad, and it also has a very distinct smell, okay? I’m gonna pass around just a little tiny bit. Now, I want you all to take a smell, so you know when someone is smoking marijawana near you.”
Mr. Mackey
South Park S2E3

I published a new smell study today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE: Consumer perceptions of strain differences in Cannabis aroma. You can download a free copy here. Sure, there’s some statistics and chemistry, but anyone interested in smell—or weed—can read it and understand the results.

In the spirit of Hollywood prequels, I will describe in a subsequent post how the study came about.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

'Tis the Season

Looking for a Christmas gift for a scent- and/or science-minded person? You’re in luck! There’s still time to order a paperback copy of What the Nose Knows. Order through the Amazon link on this page and you’ll add a few coins to the FirstNerve Beer Fund—at no cost to yourself.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Norman Bates Profile: A Halloween Meta-Analysis

In the deepening gloom of the post-equinoctial season, we are cheered to find the spirit of I Smell Dead People taking hold of a new generation of decay-obsessed social media types. There is, for example, the elegantly produced Death/Scent blog (“Exploring the weird & wonderful world of fragrance & funerals”) and its associated twitter account @DeathandScent.

Here at FirstNerve Manor, we admit to being sadly negligent in the I Smell Dead People department. It takes quite an effort to track down and validate (according to our strict rules) every incident of a deceased person being discovered through the scent of corporeal decay. FirstNerve simply doesn’t have the resources to pay all the little Festers who serve as our ISDP scribes and scorekeepers. We tried to code a proprietary algorithm to handle the task, but it kept choking on news items about blooming Corpse Flowers.

Nevertheless, we still monitor the police blotters and were inspired to tweet a couple of potential 2017 Norman Bates Award™ nominees this month. [This prize is given to the person or persons who has shown exemplary, if bizarre, olfactory fortitude in living in close quarters with a dead body.—Ed.] One nominee was a guy in Georgia who lived with the body of his deceased aunt; the other was a Minnesotan who cohabited with the bodies of his mother and twin brother.

Both cases were somewhat anomalous. We don’t recall a nominee’s aunt figuring in any previous incident, but we’ve seen twins before. Brothers Edwin Larry Berndt and Edward Christian Berndt, of Houston, Texas, won the 2011 Norman Bates Award for living three months with the corpse of their 89-year-old mother.

This got us thinking about family relationships. The “actual” Norman Bates lived with the remains of his mother, and our impression has been that mothers are over-represented as co-habitees. But is this true? We decided to gather some data and analyze it.

Our source was the Norman Bates Award™ archives. The prize was given for six years running (2010 to 2015); our total database consists of 45 nominees and 47 bodies. Here’s how it breaks down:

Number of nominees who lived with body of
mother 14
father 4
husband 4
wife 1
brother 3
sister 1
son 2
daughter 2
uncle 1
girlfriend 3
boyfriend 2
roommate/housemate 5
landlord 1
unknown 4
So there you have it: the Norman Bates profile is real. An NBA nominee is far more likely to live with the remains of his mother than any other category of deceased person. (It’s not all guys btw—the list includes a few Norma Bates’s.)

More generally, parents (18) outnumber spouses (5), siblings (4), children (4) and BF/GFs (5).

In 9 cases (20% of the total) the deceased was murdered by the NBA nominee. This was true for 2 of 14 mothers, 1 of 4 fathers, 1 of 2 daughters, 1 of 2 BFs, 2 of 3 GFs, 1 of 5 roommates/housemates, and the landlord.

What drives people to cohabit with the deceased? Our guess is mental incompetence and/or panic, with anosmia as a possible contributing factor. But there is often a venal motivation for concealing the death—in 6 cases the NBA nominee cashed the dead person’s Social Security or pension checks, or otherwise made use of their bank account.

That’s it for now. We have to go to Big Bob’s Work Wear and buy bib overalls for our Chucky costume. See ya next time!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Spinning One's Wheels

Given my recent work on cannabis aroma for Headspace Sensory, LLC, I’ve been thinking a lot about sensory description. A short post at the Scent Culture Institute on “smell wheels” caught my eye. In it, Claus Noppeny (and/or one or more of his sidekicks at the SCI) looks at visual representations of smell, such as Michael Edwards’ Fragrance Wheel and Mandy Aftel’s Natural Perfume Wheel. (Both of these, I should note, were preceded by Ann Noble’s 1987 Wine Aroma Wheel, which really launched the modern enthusiasm for wheels.)

SCI asserts that the wheel format for displaying fragrance families (or aromatic notes in wine) has limitations, the primary one being that the circle implies completeness while allowing for no further additions (e.g., new fragrance notes). SCI immediately undercuts its latter charge by noting that Mandy is currently revising her wheel. However, the observation that wheels project an all-you-need-to-know—nothing else matters!—completeness is, I think, correct. Self-enclosed circles are a poor way to encourage new ways of thinking and perceiving.

But epistemological isolation is the least of the aroma wheel’s problems. For me, more serious problems arise from the format’s practical implications. Let’s consider three such problems.

Problem 1: Size of Slice

In a typical wheel layout, one moves radially outward from categories (“fruity”) through subcategories (“citrus”) to specifics (“grapefruit”). This creates a pizza-slice shape for each category. Some slices are a lot wider than others. Why? Because they have a lot of specifics (the Wine Aroma Wheel “fruity” category has 19), while others have a few (“woody” has just 7). Assigning a large fraction of the wheel to “fruity” implies that it is a dominant odor category, and that “woody” is relatively subordinate.

But from a sensory evaluation perspective, this is not necessarily true: a given wine may display several fruity notes, but it’s extremely unlikely that any wine will display all 19 fruity notes. Furthermore, even when several fruity notes are present, it doesn’t mean that they dominant that wine’s aroma. A Chardonnay’s fruit notes may be overpowered by oakiness.

Problem 2: Arrangement of Slices

My impression is that categories on most, if not all, aroma wheels are arranged based on intuition. That is to say, their ordering around the wheel is not based on data regarding relative similarity. More likely, it is based on the subjective impression that floral and fruity are more closely related smellwise than floral and woody.

Problem 3: Making Ends Meet

Even if there are data confirming the similarity sequence floral : fruity : woody, what justifies us linking floral to woody in order to make a circle? Would it not be more honest to portray the relationship as a linear smell spectrum? Or maybe a triangle? (But it wouldn’t look as cool.—Ed.)

These intellectual objections cannot offset the appealing simplicity and visual allure of the wheel format. But in an age of innovative data visualization, there are surely better ways to display sensory descriptors and their interrelationships.