I’ve listened to a couple of interesting and useful podcasts recently…
The first, ‘Sniffing Out Danger’ on BBC Radio 4 was ostensibly about how technologists are trying to put the sense of smell to different uses (e.g., sniffing out drugs and explosives) but underlying this was a discussion about olfaction in general. A thread throughout the programme was a recording of 2 women going on an olfactory tour of Glasgow, stopping to savour the smells of different locations. What emerges is that our sense of smell lurks in the cognitive background, ever present but rarely noticed. On the other hand the programme presents academics talking about the mystery surrounding the neural mechanisms of smell. I found this a bit odd as I have read in the past (and now can’t find) a really good paper positing a quantum mechanical model of smell. The proposed model was that there a large numbers of smell receptors in the olfactory bulb and when smell-molecules arrive in the bulb they come into contact with the receptors. Each molecule has a particular shape and chirality, and when these match with the receptor an electron quantum tunnels from one branch of the receptor to another which causes the neuron to fire sending a signal deeper into the brain. As ever with these questions, the passage of an electro-chemical signal along and between neurons is not a sufficient explanation of the subjective experience of, say, walking through the woods and encountering a patch of wild garlic. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating start to an explanation.
Anyway, going back to the podcast, smell helps us understand our environment and shapes our response to it…. I’ve finished Hillier’s ‘Space is the machine’ and his understanding is that our reading of space is primarily based on lines of sight and patterns of co-presence in space with others. The other senses don’t come into that analysis, perhaps they should..?
The other podcast was from the ever-fabulous Radiolab. Their latest short programme, ‘Unraveling Bolero’ looks at the parallels between an artist, Ann Adams, and the composer Maurice Ravel. Both developed a rather compulsive form of creativity, which can be heard in the repetitive structure of ‘Bolero’. It turns out that their creativity emerged in the early stages of Fronto-Temporal Dementia (FTD). There are different sub-variants of FTD but all involve damage to the frontal cortex. This is often manifest as problems with language but there are other side-effects. At this point I found the terms of the discussion on the programme unhelpful, they talked about language suppressing outputs from more primitive parts of the brain. I’d prefer to argue that language and thought are profoundly intertwined and that it might be more accurate/helpful to talk about cortical processing suppressing outputs from the basal ganglia. Either way, the basal ganglia is involved in primitive motor actions/routines. What is interesting in the case of these two creatives is that early on in the course of the dementia, when there was still some cortical processing going on, these signals from the basal ganglia were no longer suppressed but they were channeled by the frontal-cortex and emerged through their chosen art-forms in repetitive, obsessive forms. Ultimately, of course, even this creativity was stripped away and eventually both died from the disease. Perhaps the strength of the programme is that it managed to bring to the light both the human and scientific narratives. In this sense the programme provides an ideal for any work in this area.