Blind Smell: A Reflection on Curiosity, Persistence, and New Discovery

about 4 years ago

Recently, while working on a piece about memory and smell, I came upon a concept that I’d never before heard about: blind smell. I’d read often enough about blindsight, the ability of individuals who are blind to detect visual stimuli even though they have no conscious experience of seeing, but this was something new. Apparently, it’s also possible for someone to have a neural response to scent, a brain that discriminates between different odor concentrations and reacts to them as if nothing strange was going on, even though the person himself can’t smell a single thing. The brain has a strange way of knowing things that are unknowable to the mind.

We often know more than we can say

How does something like blind smell or blind sight happen? In both cases, people are physiologically able to detect something in the external environment, but have no actual awareness of their ability to do so. In fact, even when confronted with proof of their accomplishment (“Look! You were able to tell me what I was holding, or where I was holding it!”), individuals with blindsight tend to shrug and say it was just a lucky guess. They honestly don’t know. Somehow, the brain is responding to a perceptual stimulus, be it visual or olfactory, and the response is, on some level, recorded: individuals with both conditions have above-chance rates of accurate responses to questions, even though they think they are only guessing. But somewhere before conscious awareness sets in, the connection breaks down.

The importance of asking questions

This made me wonder: how many things does our brain know that we might be able to report on if someone were to only ask us the right question? If no one tested individuals with blind smell or blindsight, they would simply be individuals who are anosmic and blind, respectively. Just like individuals in a persistent vegetative state were just “vegetables” until someone thought to have them envision playing tennis—and discovered that in an admittedly select few, the brain could still answer questions that the body had no way of responding to.

The only way we know of these conditions is that somewhere, a researcher thought to ask, to pry further than the obvious, to go beyond the surface condition and see if there may not be something else going on. And how many instances are there where no one has yet posed the appropriate question? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know until after the question has been asked—and for every case of a blind smell discovery, there are likely hundreds of misfires and misdirected lines of query, enough to frustrate even ardent researchers. But some keep trying, keep searching further and asking increasingly difficult or farfetched questions. And to me, that’s the ultimate inspiration.

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[Photo credit: Steel sculpture 'Discovery,' in Northampton; dedicated to Francis Crick. Creative Commons, from dawarwirckphotography flickr photostream]

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