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28. Smellscape

DescriptionEssay to 'pioneer the exploration of the landscape of smell' in response to the call for a more thorough examination of the non-visual senses by environmental aestheticians. Discussion of the role of smell in memory and childhood and the possible application of 'smellscape' studies.
MethodologyLiterature review of olfactory research in psychology, followed by an investigation of smell as a function of person, place and time.
  • Up to 90% of our perceptual intake is visual, and much of the rest is auditory and tactile.
  • Smell seems to stimulate strong emotional or motivational arousal (affect) and little cognition, (Engen, 1982, 129) while visual experience is much more likely to involve thought and cognition.
  • The perceived intensity of smell declines rapidly after one has been exposed to it for some time. Habituation is very important in smell: we get used to smells very quickly.
  • Memory of smell does not decay with time. Unlike visual memory, memory of smell remains constant and can be accurate decades after the original stimulus, perhaps because smell is primitively linked directly to processing in the brain.
  • We mostly like the smells with which we are familiar and dislike those which are strange.
  • There are vast individual and group differences in the sensory response to smell which also relates to the familiar/unfamiliar and insider/outsider antinomy in smell perception, (Relph, 1976)
  • Odour tolerances and preferences appear to be age related. Children before puberty appear to be much more sensitive to smell than after.
PublishedProgress in Human Geography", 9(3): 356-78
AuthorsPorteous, J. Douglas
DateSeptember, 1985
PublisherElsevier Scientific Publishing Co.
Pricesubscription c. 146 p.a. (4)
KeywordsOlfactory /smell/multisensory experience/ environmental aesthetics/psychology
CommentsLucid and well argued essay which places the study of smell as part of a multi-sensory experience of the environment in the context of environmental aesthetics. Argues that more 'naturalistic' field studies of odour perception are required and encourages non-laboratory research. Useful guide to research to date linking aesthetic theories with psychological research.

He makes particular reference to the work of Engen:

Engen, T (1977) Taste and Smell in Birren, J.E. and Schaie, K.W. eds. Handbook of the psychology of ageing New York: Van Nostrand, 173-81

Engen, T. (1979) The origin of preferences in taste and smell, in Kroese, J.H.A. ed. Preference, behaviour and chemoreception, London: Information Retrieval Ltd, 263-73

Engen, T. (1982) The Perception of Odor Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley

Engen, T. and Ross, B.M. (1973) Long term memory of odors with and without verbal descriptions. Journal of Experimental Psychology 100: 221-27

On historical view:

Boring, E.G. (1942) Sensation and perception in the history of experimental psychology New York: Appleton Century

Humanistic study:

Relph, E. (1976) Place and Placelessness London: Pion