Friday, April 18, 2008

Perfumes : The Guide VS Psychology, or In Defense of What I Love

The newest book by Luca Turin and co-author Tania Sanchez has had several online perfume communities abuzz ever since it hit the bookstores. I have not participated in any of those (often) heated discussions because one, I regretfully don’t have the time to post on any fora at the moment, two I don’t actually own the Guide, and three, I am put off by some of the ugliness that is being generated literally daily on the subject. I do not mind honest criticism, but I do mind obvious trolling and mud slinging, so I made the conscious decision to stay out of this discussion altogether. “I am not touching this with a ten-foot pole”, I thought to myself. Yet life does often find a way to mock me: a couple of days ago, I came across an actual excerpt from the book on Good Morning America’s website. After reading through the piece, I decided I had to at least try and correct some of the misconceptions perpetuated by Tania Sanchez in regards to psychology, possibly the most misunderstood and maligned science in the world.

“Smell psychologists and the uncritical journalists who love them get a lot of mileage out of calling smell the most primitive sense.”

First of all, the only “smell psychologist” I know of is Rachel Herz and I am rather certain this is not a title awarded by any university. I am more inclined to believe Herz was dubbed as a “smell psychologist” by those ‘uncritical journalists’ you mention. I am not familiar with Herz’s work, meaning that she is not an author cited in any of my books nor have I come across any of her articles in the peer-reviewed journals I read. I am in no position to defend her – nor do I wish to. According to Wikipedia however, the university of Toronto does seem to have awarded her a PhD, “she won a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Post-Doctoral Award and took her research to the University of British Columbia.”, “she received the Ajinomoto USA Inaugural Award for Promising Young Scientists and joined the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia as an Assistant Member.” and “In 2000, Rachel Herz joined the faculty at Brown University, where she first was a member of the Psychology Department and is now a visiting professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, of Brown University Medical School.”. I am not unquestioning of anyone, much less of someone whose work I’ve not had personal experience with, but based on the information above, I’d hazard a guess that she is not a total quack.

As for psychologists “calling smell the most primitive sense”, can you actually provide a citation for this offensive claim? Yes, a google search will bring up many positive results, but I am not talking about newspaper or magazine articles that dub the sense of smell as such. I am talking about scientific journals confirming to APA guidelines or psychology handbooks used by major universities. Psychologists are certainly not to blame for this unflattering characterization. I suspect the reason why journalists have dubbed it so is that olfactory information is the only type of sensory information that does not first go to the thalamus for processing before being sent as output to the cerebral cortex. Olfactory information goes from the olfactory receptors to the olfactory bulbs and then directly to the cortex, without passing through the thalamus for processing.

“But as with all of the work of evolutionary psychologists, the conclusions that support our desires and reinforce our prejudices are those of which we should be most wary.”

I simply fail to grasp the meaning of this, especially in the context of the paragraph. Are you actually saying that we should be wary of ALL of the work of evolutionary psychologists? Certainly there are fallacies to be avoided, such as the naturalistic fallacy and the deterministic fallacy, but that does not mean that a whole field of psychology should be condemned in one fell sweep. Many of the theories of evolutionary psychology can provide theories for explanations of human behavior which can be really helpful, especially when seen in the context of other theories which support them. In any case, that is the turn that psychology is taking at the moment. Human behavior is too complex to explain by just a single theory. Many psychologists are taking a multi-systems approach, integrating theories into grander theories that help shed light and improve our understanding.

“Psychologists seem particularly fixated on sex as the engine that secretly drives our every choice and action.”

Errm. No. Are you thinking of Freudian psychology? Not even Freudian psychology is so simplistic, but first, Freudian psychology is not accepted as scientific and is looked down upon by psychologists today and second, psychologist are not by any stretch of the imagination “fixated on sex as the engine that secretly drives our every choice and action.” There are many theories on behavior, from many different schools of psychology. The closest theory to what you are describing is central-state theory of drives, according to which, different drives correspond to neural activity in different sets of neurons in the brain (Stellar & Stellar, 1985.) To identify the functions of specific nuclei and tracts, psychologists either damage them or stimulate them and assess the effect this has on behavior. The most studied drive is possibly hunger, but certainly not sex.

“This point of view never cost a psychologist his or her job or interfered with book sales, and offers the irresistible premise that biology releases us from the responsibility to make choices. Pop psychologists love smell. Smell is supposedly about sex and deeply buried memory, a sense that bypasses the rational mind, thwarts all efforts of language to describe it, and reaches sneaky neural wiring directly into regions beyond thought—for example, forcing you to be sexually attracted to or threatened by the perspiration of basketball players or generating forceful hallucinations of childhood triggered by smells of floor wax. It's the fondest hope of every perfume firm that the psychologists should be right, and that human beings should be sniffing each other to say hello and see who's been where and with whom.”

Can you at least TRY to differentiate between what you refer to as pop-psychologists and psychologists? Since there seems to be little difference in your mind between the two, I’ll assume you are referring to actual psychologists with the above statement. According to psychologists, like other animals, we do have specialized glands that secrete odorous substances, and some of these substances are steroid molecules that resemble substances known to serve as pheromones in other mammals. Most species of mammals have a structure called the vomeronasal organ in their nasal cavity, which contains receptor cells specialized for responding to pheromones (Gray, 2002.) But also according to psychologists, even though we humans do have a vomeronasal organ, the evidence to date is inconclusive as to whether it actually functions in our species or is vestigial (McClintock, 2000.) In many experiments, men and women have been exposed to various secretions taken from the other sex and have rated the attractiveness of the odor or changes in their mood. Again, to date, such experiments have failed to yield convincing evidence that we produce such hormones (Hughes, 1999; McClintock, 2000.) This certainly does not fit at all with your comment that “It's the fondest hope of every perfume firm that the psychologists should be right, and that human beings should be sniffing each other to say hello and see who's been where and with whom.”, does it? In fact, according to psychologists, all this makes absolute sense: “Sex-attractant pheromones are valuable for animals that mate only at certain times of the year or only when the female is ovulating, as a means of synchronizing the sex drives of males and females to maximize the chance of conception. (...) Humans have taken a different evolutionary route, such that sexual drive and behavior are not tied to a season, cycle or variable physiological state. For that reason, perhaps, there is little or no need for us to advertise by scent our readiness to mate (Gray, 2002.)” There is some solid evidence for pheromones in our species, but since this does not concern sex and attraction, I will not digress from the subject.

“Psychology is supposed to be a science, and science makes profits predictable.”

You seem to be doubting the fact that psychology is a science. Currently science is defined in terms of the approaches used to study the topic. Specifically, three criteria must be met for an investigation to be considered scientific: systematic empiricism, public verification and solvability (Stanovich, 1996.)

Psychology conforms to those conditions; in fact much of the study is devoted to methodology, experimentation, international guidelines, verification and statistics. It is possible that Philosophy will come up with a new way to define science sometime in the future. Until then, I guess you’re stuck with accepting the fact that Psychology is, indeed, a science.

I am truly disappointed. I simply can’t understand how Luca Turin would allow his name to be on a publication that is potentially slanderous to a whole field of science. I really enjoy Turin’s articles on NZZ Folio and will continue reading them. I admire the fact that he does not hesitate to show his presence on perfume blogs and perfume communities to answer questions and even to defend his views, something noone, least of all he is obliged to do. I want to believe this somehow flew under his radar. However, I am angry at Sanchez’s disdain towards my field of choice. Tania, if you value science so much, the least you can do is at least provide some citations next time. You certainly did a good job of writing exactly like all those ‘uncritical’ journalists you do not care for. Sweeping generalizations, a refusal to go any deeper than a cursory perusal of the surface, sensationalist claims that no doubt boost sales and appease the public that wants to hear exactly what you just gave them. You did it all.

Images: The Abduction of Psyche by William Bougueraeu,
Letter Psi,


Sue said...

Here, here! Very well said.

PS Thank you for reviewing Vivienne Westwood Libertine - I sprung for it unsniffed and simply adore it. Your review is spot on and articulates the feel of the scent perfectly.

Looking forward to your next entry! :-)

Divina said...

Dear Sue, your comment put a big smile on my face! In fact, you made my day! I am so glad the review was helpful and that you found a new fragrance you love :) Thank you so much for making me smile uncontrollably - it certainly was needed after the headache inducing post I wrote today.

Fragrant hugs to you!

Ines said...

Great article!
And I'm writing again because I lost my first comment somewhere along trying to publish it. :)
I just wanted to say if you hadn't explained it the way you have, it would have flown under my radar as well. And that brings me to the fact that people should really give more care to what they say to the general public who are not familiar with the topic being discussed and who will take everything at face value.

Divina said...

Ines, I totally agree! And that is exactly the reason I decided to write this. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this admittedly long post.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this! I couldn't agree with you more.
I can't stand when people propagate blatant misinformation about psychology and sciences in general. (I have a degree in sociology, so I also have some personal experience with people insisting that it's not a science--people who are ignorant of what a "science" actually is, and about scientific methods and research communities...)
On another note, and this is just my opinion, Turin's and Sanchez's arrogance really puts me off.
I could go on, but I'll just stop there :)
Great post, Divina.
I really enjoy your blog!

PinstripedZebra said...

Seriously, I totally agree with you too! Psychology is totally a science!

I have not read the book you are talking about either but the exerpts are nasty. I love It that you gave such a great rebuke to these remarks.

I would love to see more of these indepth posts!


Anita said...

Dear Divina -

I agree with Ines. This would all have passed me by, had you not taken the time to post this. I admire the way that you have named the sources that back up what you have written. Great job, and thank you!

Anonymous said...

Outstanding essay, Divina! Bravo many times over for your careful reading of Sanchez' essay. I do own the book but have not read the essays toward the front of the book yet; I will certainly read them more closely with your commentary in mind.

TMH256 said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this Divina! The field of psychology owes you one. :-) I have yet to pick up the book. All I have to do is log onto any perfume board to discover its content (and some I would care not to know about). It certainly has people buzzing!

Divina said...

Molly, I totally agree. It's bad enough that people in general are misinformed about certain scientific fields especially, but when a book that gets so much attention is actually propagating this nonsense it actually becomes scandalous. Thank you so much for your comment!

Divina said...

Z, sweetheart, thank you so much for your continuing support - both in real life and here on my blog... You probably know better than anyone how I feel about this - you know my love for the field first hand and have seen the endless toil that goes into every single exam. Let's not forget, you witessed the actual anger when I first read this :P


Divina said...

Anita, thank you! This almost felt like a Smelly facts post when I was writing it, with so much information about olfaction thrown in there! I am so glad you enjoyed it and found it helpful :)

Divina said...

Heather, my dearest, thank you so much for commenting! I am actually overwhelmed by the response this post got. I sort of felt like it was something noone was going to read, because it is so long and it is not a perfume review. I am so thankful everyone took the time to read it. I felt it was my duty to write it, even though I thought noone was going to read it... And now, all these comments.. it feels even more worth it. I am just truly happy.

Divina said...

My wonderful friend, are you feeling a bit rested? I totally agree, I also saw some thing I did not care for, some things that made me cringe. I did think I might buy the guide sometime in the future, but not after reading that Turin is already planning a revised version with addtions for the 2nd edition, and certainly not after reading this excerpt on GMA's site. Now I just want to keep my money away from the person that so thoughtlessly dismissed a whole field of science (MY field of science!).. As nasty as that sounds. That's the way I feel, anyway.

Sue said...

Hi Divina,

I'm so glad to have brightened your day! :-) You have brought me great enjoyment with your writing and I'm happy to have reciprocated in some small way.

Have a wonderful weekend!

tricia said...

Thank you for this mini review of the book! I have read the book in its entirety and found the writing to be generally lacking in accuracy, fairness and thoughtful consideration. This is not a comment on whether or not a particular perfume should have more or fewer stars. Rather, it is an observation that the book is written as a series of one-liners or "pithy" statements intent on using every adjective and adverb in the english language. Excerpts such as those you note highlight that the writer devoted much energy to appearing "clever". The book would have benefitted from a good editor and more restraint - IMO.

Anya said...

Brilliant post, Divina, thank you so much. I suggest this book also, not that you needed it when you compiled this nice skewer to a big balloon ;-)

I do remember Luca Turin going on in his blog about his counter theory to scent being the most primitive sense, something about how it will come out in 50 years. Perhaps Tania has jumped on that bandwagon?

Anonymous said...

as i read that portion of the book it felt to me like just a few more opinions (to match the main section of the book), so i didn't take it any more seriously than i did the rest of it.

i can see why it would irk you, though - it has some convincing passion attached to it, and that has been known to sway people, regardless of the facts. and, it's in a book that's touted as the "definitive" guide to perfume, so it could be taken as gospel by some readers.

your analysis was quite illuminating. i would say to you, have heart, because like you, many of us are sensitive to nuances and inferences of all sorts.

ha, even our own!

- minette

Divina said...

Tricia, I have heard very similar thoughts expressed from friends that have read the book as well, so you're not alone in thinking that. If the authors want the public to be educated about this form of art, they would have done well to provide reasoning behind their opinions..

Divina said...

Anya thank you SO much for this suggestion! I am already excited about this book, it sounds right up my street. One of the reviewers mentions the follow-up, which sounds very interesting as well. I might spring for that also. Thank you!!

Divina said...

Ines, thank you. Yes indeed, this book is getting ALOT of publicity and this means that this false information (indeed presented with a good dose of passion which can easily sway the opinion of the undecided) will just be perpetuated. It has made me really angry, actually.

Anya said...

Don't get angry, get even. ;-)

I wanted to let you know since I've started the Guild blog, I'm freed up to link to blogs that talk about synth perfumes ;-) on my anyasgarden blog so I'm adding you tonight.

stacy said...

Hi.. I just came across this blog tonight and read this post with interest as I had heard some people mention the book. I appreciate your review.
The part that is mind boggling to me, is this:
“But as with all of the work of evolutionary psychologists, the conclusions that support our desires and reinforce our prejudices are those of which we should be most wary.”
What exactly does that even mean?! Personally, I'm kind of insulted, as I think Tania has known a lot of perfumistas over the years (right?).. doesn't she know that we're smart, analytical people? Some of the most interesting, intelligent posts I've ever read have been on fragrance boards. I do not understand what she was thinking when she wrote this. Did she not even interview ONE psychologist in preparation for the book??

Anyway, I'm disappointed that she (and Luca) would think so little of her readers.

Anonymous said...

Great post. First time reader here through googling the topic - I don't own this book and will not buy it. Browsing at B&N and reading the snotty reviews was enough for me. It had too much of the feel of the cool kids at school putting down anything that anyone else liked (because if someone else liked it, eeeeew).

And for the record, Floris Edwardian Bouquet does NOT smell like urine on me. Maybe the authors have sour constitutions and it changed on them....

Divina said...

Oh my god, they trashed Edwardian Bouquet? I absolutely loooove this fragrance. Wearing it makes me feel elegant, feminine and charming. It has the feel of a winter fragrance, but it becomes a favorite of mine during the summer. I wear it in the evenings and it makes me feel like a million dollars. If you want to read a more positive review of it, use the search function here on my blog :) I reviewed this some time ago. Thank you for posting, hope to see you again here on Fragrance Bouquet.


Divina said...

Anya sweetie, thank you :) *huggles*

Divina said...

Stacey thank you so much for the comment. I totally agree with you and it is what bugged me also: insulting the intelligence of the reader, assuming that noone knows, or will question, or look any further.

Your eyes are gorgeous by the way, what a lovely picture. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Divina for the enlightening article. I loved reading the comments, so many people that can think for themselves, instead of buying everything they read.


Anonymous said...

Lighten up, will you? Surely an educated person like you doesn't take everything you read seriously, nor should you take Turin that way. I don't buy into all the research you quoted either. There's a lot of junk science out there, and much of the research you like to quote is often biased.

Divina said...

LOL, are you serious? Honey, when you make accusations like that, you better back them up with examples. I take this subject very seriously due to my ethos so the research I post is ALWAYS from peer reviewed cited journals from the field of chemistry, medicine and psychology, or from university textbooks that are used in big universities all over the world. The first ever class I took when I begun studying was Academic Values, and a very important part of that was choosing the right bibliography for your articles. Those values, I apply when I write Smelly Facts and I also applied in this instance. Trying to throw mud in order to confuse people is not going to work here. Noone is going to take you seriously when you don't even provide an example. Take your empty accusations elsewhere.