Thursday, December 26, 2013

FirstNerve Review: The Neuropsychology of Smell and Taste by G. Neil Martin

A book titled The Neuropsychology of Smell and Taste is not what one normally grabs from the shelf for amusement during a long plane ride. But having agreed to review it, I took it along on a recent flight from Newark to San Francisco figuring that it would, at least, deter annoying attempts at conversation from fellow passengers. How wrong I was. An attractive woman saw it peeking out of my carry-on bag and began talking to me in the boarding line; she is a neuropsychologist in the Bay Area. Somewhere over Nebraska the guy next to me asks me what I do; he has a cousin in the fragrance business he had to tell me about. Then the weirdo who had been marking up a briefcase full of fashion magazines chimed in about perfume trends; he’s a department store merchandiser. The lesson, I suppose, is that if you want to meet people you could do worse than get yourself a copy of Neil Martin’s new book.

Martin, who teaches psychology at Middlesex University in England, is the author of several well-regarded textbooks, as well as original research papers on, among other things, odor perception. His latest opus, part of the Psychology Press Brain, Behaviour and Cognition Series, is a lucid summary of the field aimed at advanced undergraduates, grad students, clinicians, and those looking to do research in the area—in other words, anyone with more than a casual interest in the functioning of the nose, tongue and brain. Those working in commercial venues—aromatherapists, neuromarketers, food writers, flavorists, ENTs, etc.—will also find it useful.

I think it says something positive about the field that there is finally a book to fill the gap between the hyper-focused experimental reports in the scientific literature and the dense, scholarly compilations that weigh down the bookshelves of the few with grant money enough to afford them. The area is sufficiently mature and the audience sufficiently wide to warrant an accessible treatment.

Martin’s topical approach is straightforward. He begins with the psychology of chemosensation and how smell and taste perceptions are measured. Then he reviews the major factors underlying individual differences: age, sex, personality, and culture. Next, he describes the basics of anatomy, neuroanatomy, and neurophysiology, covering everything from receptors to cortex and including such mechanical phenomena as the nasal cycle and swallowing. (Actually, he misses a couple of key papers debunking the nasal cycle by some fat-faced four-eyes but that’s a mere quibble in a work of this scope.) From there, it’s on to psychophysiology and neuro-imaging: the full array of studies using EEG, fMRI and allied techniques. The penultimate chapter deals with disorders of perception, including full attention to smell impairment in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. He concludes with the neuropsychology of flavor, taking a wide view that includes interactions between smell, taste and sight, and the mechanisms of hunger and satiety.

Booyah! Martin’s coverage is exhaustive but not exhausting. He has a deft touch in highlighting key findings, and he leavens the text with witticisms as dry as the sherry in the faculty lounge. His judgment is solid, making him a trustworthy guide for those venturing into the area for the first time.

I found the neuro-imaging chapter less satisfying that the others, but this is no fault of Martin’s. fMRI studies induce a sort of kaleidoscopic effect on the reader due to the fractal nature of the papers themselves. Each begins with an odor manipulation, then inventories activity in various brain regions of interest, compares this activity across the left and right hemispheres, and sometimes across ipsi- versus contra-lateral nostril odor delivery, and finally cross indexes these differences in men and women. The result is a patchwork quilt of neuroscience mini-effects: “Nosenpicker and McMucus found that unpleasant odors delivered to the left nostril evoke greater response in the left orbitofrontal cortex of men and a decrease in activity in the right insula in men and women, while a pleasant odor delivered to the right nostril tends to result in heightened response to the . . .” and so on. Martin tries manfully to extract general conclusions, but there is only so much one can do with brain science of the slice and dice variety. I believe imaging people have been shotgunning in all directions for too long; it is time they got their own house in order by tying specific hypotheses to specific brain areas.

The Neuropsychology of Smell and Taste is timely, up-to-date, and an excellent overview of the field. I expect it will become standard reading in sensory science.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas to All

And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight-
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Awaken Your Unconscious Emotions . . . With a Nissan Air Freshener

And now for a light and effervescent video to ease you into the weekend. It comes courtesy of Nissan and it’s about a fragrance designed by George Dodd for the company’s electric vehicle, the Leaf. He may look like an overgrown hobbit, but Dr. Dodd has the Irishman’s gift of making any nonsense sound charming. My favorite scene is where the blond technician babe evaluates an air freshener in a wind tunnel. Let’s just say it opens up new realms of olfactory fantasy.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

ISDP: When the Snoring Stops

The alarm on our nifty Necronomichron™ travel clock just went off which means this is Friday the 13th and time for an especially auspicious edition of ISDP, FirstNerve’s wildly popular feature which premiered on Friday the 13th almost five years ago. Ahhh, good times. We warned you then, and we’ll warn you now:
The squeamish and the irony-impaired should immediately click away, preferably to some bright, safe, happy place where it always smells like sunshine and fresh laundry.
Everyone else saddle up and let’s ride in search of that telltale stench that means only one thing. Our first stop is Texas:
Investigators are trying to identify a woman found dead in a truck in southwest Houston overnight. 
A passer-by called police after noticing a foul odor in a Dodge Ram pickup parked on Pine Street near South Renwick.
We can’t find any further developments to this story. So we head to East Windsor, Connecticut, where the scene is equally mysterious and even more alarming:
The rotting corpse of a 57-year-old man was found inside his Connecticut home — which was filled with a cache of weapons and rigged with explosives, authorities said. 
Police found the body of Russell Bickford inside the Stoughton Road home in East Windsor, just north of Hartford, after a neighbor complained of a foul smell on the first floor Tuesday . . .
Bickford has apparently been dead for three weeks, although a cause of death was not immediately clear.

On to Florida, a leading source of ISDP incidents:
Three bodies found at an upscale, gated community in Florida had been there for weeks without anyone noticing, a medical examiner says. 
The bodies – which were not identified – were discovered on Saturday in Orlando after a property manager went to check on three residents that he had not heard from in a while. 
Upon arrival at the home, located in the golf course community of Eagle Creek, the manager smelled a foul odor and alerted authorities. . . . the bodies were those of a 34-year-old woman, a 50-year-old man and a child.
Sticklers that we are, however, this is not a true ISDP incident because the property manager was already acting on his suspicions when he encountered the Foul Odor.

On the other hand, we have a new nominee for the 2013 Norman Bates Award™. The item appeared in the Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure [Quelle ironie!—Ed.] under the screaming headline “Elle dormait depuis un an avec son mari . . . momifié!”
A Brussels widow slept next to her mummified husband’s corpse for a year, her landlord said after making the macabre discovery during an eviction, a Belgian daily reported Tuesday.
Tests indicate her husband “died of natural causes a year go.”
. . . the widow had told locals her husband was away “receiving treatment.”
To close on a lofty literary note, we offer this fine mini-memoir by Garrett McGrath writing on Narratively. In “The Secret Life of a Manhattan Doorman” he recounts a summer job from long ago.
The smells are the thing I don’t forget. Harsh cleaners, dead bodies, the results of four a.m. bodega runs, cluttered apartments filled with rotting paper. I can recall each smell distinctively; they are unique to that time and place. It also works in reverse: if I stumble upon one of the smells, it takes me back to being a naïve seventeen-year-old, working in the hot New York City summer—the buzz of air conditioners working in the night, straining power grids. The city was asleep and I was awake. I was a doorman.
As the newbie, he is forced to check on the old lady whose relatives haven’t heard from her in a few days.
I pushed the key into the keyhole and wiggled it until it caught. All the lights were on. I scanned the living room. Then, I saw it. An arm, completely dark blue, limp over the side of the couch. She was facing the TV. The smell in the apartment was every cliché from every horrible television detective procedural. It was acrid; it smelled like rotting meat. I couldn’t take it and I ran outside. I desperately wanted to vomit but couldn’t show weakness in front of Manny. He would tell the others and I would be mocked for the entire summer. Manny and I went downstairs and he told Corey to call 911.
That’s it for this edition, folks. Be sure to tip your doorman for the holidays.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bonfire of the Vanities

You want to give a guy credit for trying to do the right thing, but when the outcome is this stupendously bad you have to wonder.
A homeless man is in Northampton County Prison after he allegedly set a fire to mask a foul smell wafting from a restroom at a vacant restaurant in south Bethlehem.
The fire got out of control and the fellow is charged with arson.
Apparently, Burwell tried to create his own air freshener with wood chips and paper towels. He took wood chips that he found in the garage, placed paper towels underneath and then lit it up in the restroom sink.
Lighting a single match is the usual ritual atonement for fouling the air in a bathroom—what on earth did he do that required a bonfire?
Court documents were silent on what caused the stench in the nonfunctioning toilet.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Renifleur Alert

Elie Mystal at AboveTheLaw goes all foot stompy over a judge’s decision that aggressive sniffing does not constitute sexual harassment. His post is accompanied by a blank image space captioned “Getty only has images of women or children sniffing things . . . because men sniffing women is TOTALLY CREEPY.” And to prove his PC bona fides he throws in the phrase “a prick Texas judge.”

Feel the force of his intellect—unlike you, Elie Mystal has two Harvard degrees. [Does that make him a pecksniff?—Ed.]

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

By Way of Explanation

I’ve been away. I spent Thanksgiving in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here are some pictures. Can you smell the bay breeze?