Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The First Nerve Interview: Prof. Donald H. McBurney

[This is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of interviews with scientists doing the newest and most intriguing research on smell.]

A while back I wrote about new research on “olfactory comfort,” the phenomenon of people sniffing, or even sleeping with, the worn clothing of a person from whom they are physically separated. The research was led by Donald H. McBurney, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

I caught up with Prof. McBurney by email and asked him a few questions about his research.

FN: You’ve been interested in wide variety of topics: everything from the taste of chili pepper to the evolutionary aspects of physical attractiveness. How do you characterize yourself as a scientist and psychologist?

DM: I was trained as a sensory psychologist, specializing in the psychophysics of taste and smell. This is a small part of what is considered two of the minor senses, so I have always looked for parallels in other senses. Also, because sensory psychology is among the more biological areas of psychology, I was drawn to evolutionary psychology when it came along. The work on physical attractiveness started when I saw a methodological flaw in some published research, and got an undergraduate student interested in it.

FN: Your interest in the chemical senses began when the field was much less developed than it is today. What first drew you to it?

DM: Pure accident. I was offered a position in Carl Pfaffmann’s lab as a grad student, and got interested in the work.

FN: What specifically got you interested in the science of human body odor?

DM: It is something that is obviously very important to people, based on the effort and money we spend to control it, and the social consequences of body odor. Yet it had received almost no scientific attention. I thought that made it worth attention.

FN: What are the next things we need to find out about olfactory comfort?

DM: We have some unpublished data that suggest interesting relations between olfactory comfort and attachment theory. This would take someone with expertise in both olfaction and personality theory, not a common combination.

FN: What are most important achievements in the field of human olfaction to happen during your career?

DM: I would rather not stick my neck out on that. I do think the progress in understanding the genetics of olfaction has much promise for the future.

FN: What are the biggest current challenges in the study of odor perception?

DM: Control of stimulus at the receptor makes measurement very difficult. In addition, there is a lack of motivation to study odor because it is not as crucial as vision and audition for communication.

FN: How well informed is the public about the current science of smell and taste?

DM: Taste and smell research tends to make the news sometimes because it seems a bit out of the ordinary, as with the work on sniffing T-shirts.

FN: Any other thoughts?

DM: Taste and smell lie at the intersection of many important and interesting areas, such as food intake and health, sexual behavior, and social behavior.

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