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

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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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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