Friday, December 4, 2009

Okay, time for a survey...

This is weird.

I was eating dinner a little while ago, mulling over how I had phrased, or should have phrased, a line or two in a recent post or two. It had to with describing someone unaware of an unpleasant reality. On top of that, I've been on a U2 jag the past few weeks, especially How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon. One of the lines in "A Man and a Woman" (track 7 or so on How To) is, " can't be numb for love...." Add to this that I'm about halfway through Konrad Lorenz's challenging and informative Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge, his discussion of the compound layers of perception, reflex, and habituation which synthesize to form human cognition. Altogether, I've got perception and cognition on the brain, even more than usual. (Plus, of course, I had food in my mouth, so there you go all over again.)

So, trying to find "the right word" to describe someone's insensitivity to something unpleasant, but not obtrusively upleasant, I considered "numb to," "blind to," "deaf to," etc. Then, to complete the sensory sweep, I threw in "mute" and... and... I tried to throw in a deficiency word for the nose. But I couldn't! So I thought about it in German and Chinese. A miss and another miss!

So help me out:

skin >> feel <-> numb
ear >> hear <-> deaf
eye >> see <-> blind
mouth >> speak <-> mute
nose >> smell <-> ???

I can't think of a simple term that means "can't smell"--and now that I mention it, I can't find a word for "can't taste" either--and it looks like I'm not the only one. See here and here for the same question, and an apparent answer: anosmia, anosmic, hyposmia, hyposmic. To top it off, here's an FAQ by an anosmic man himself!

I admit that answers my question, but I am still, ?, miffed that the word is a piece of medical jargon. Any child knows how to say "deaf" and "blind" in his mother tongue, and with only a few more years she can say "mute" and "numb." But why should a fairly literate person like me, with a strong interest in cognition and medicine, have no idea how to describe "can't smell" in my mother tongue and two foreign languages I love? This asymmetry signals something important about human perception and our sense of our bodies. Think about it: smell and taste are not only closely connected, but also the only senses in which visible objects of sensation physically enter our bodies. Sure, photons enter our eyes and strike our retinae, and sound waves enter our ear canals and vibrate our auditory fibers, but ancient man had no idea about such 'abstract' stimuli. Smoke, incense, perfume, wine, bread, pepper, farts, lemon juice--all these things and more visibly enter our noses and mouths when we perceive them. Shouldn't that add to the significance of smell and taste, so that language reflects their importance more than the virtual absence of "can't smell/taste" words indicates? It probably goes without saing that we are all pretty sensitive about things physically entering our bodies, so it seems we should give greater attention to the sense that literally bring foreign masses into our own system.

Then again, perhaps the bulky obviousness of smelling and tasting made them seem less myserious than sight and hearing. (As for touch, well, surely sexual titillation and physical pain suffice in any culture to make the skin a most pronounced organ of perception!) Sight seems gives us access to things near and far by an unseen mechanism; much the same goes for hearing. Further, smell and taste are connected with eating and drinking, whereas sight and hearing enable us to enjoy music, dance, and visual art. Perhaps the connection between the senses of satiety--smell and taste--compared to the senses of aesthetics--sight and hearing--demoted the former to houses of the poor, to those trapped in the endless toil of finding enough to eat and live another day, whereas the latter connected people with leisure and luxuries outside the margins of sheer survival. I realize the sense of smell has had some recent popularity, in works like Das Parfum and The Emperor of Scent, but all the same, olfaction is the odd man out on Team Senses.

Since I think we should use as little jargon as possible, unless we're actually using jargon in a principled way, I propose a "common man's" neologism for anosmic and hyposmic: unbescented. Clunky, perhaps, but it boasts a little poetry. So, now you know: if you can't see and can't smell you're blind and unbescented. Of course, this still leaves out "can't taste," which I see is "ageusic" (from ageusia), so I guess my shot in the dark proposal wasn't too far off the mark: agustic (from agustia). I admit ageusia and ageusic sound pretty good, but perhaps agustic and agustia can find a place at the table too.

I'm willing to bet a broad linguistic/anthropological survey would yield at least two results.

One, very, very few languages have a simple word for "being unable to smell/taste," but would have easy words for "being unable to feel/hear/see/say." I suspect Greek and Latin have such words, since anosmia and agustia are Greek and Latin terms, respectively.

Two, any languages that do have "everyday" words for anosmia and ageusia both are closely connected in a language family and correspond to a very different sense of the body than most Western people have.


Isaac said...

Quote, "a fairly literate person like me." That is like saying Lance Armstrong is a fairly good biker! Refer to this article for the washingtonpost

(I'm right there with the average male reading 5 books a year, sad I know!)

Your right, I don't know of a simpler term for a lack of smell or taste. I wouldn't point that out as a fault with a western way of defining the senses. Rather I would think that if you lacked a sense of smell or taste those would be the hardest for others to pick up on. If you lacked a sense of sight, hearing, or touch it would be hard for others around you to not take notice. Further if you were born lacking those senses or if the loss of those senses occurred gradually, I'm not sure you would be aware of the changes, especially if no one pointed them out to you.

What about the other senses, thermoception, nociception, equilibriocetption, proprioception, hunger, thirst, etc.

Isaac said...

One last thought. If you are successful in coining unbescented, then my hat goes off to you. I googled the term and I only got one hit from your blog, so that is all you! I think Agustic is Spanish for acoustic so I'm not sure that will stick. Personally I think the terms "nose deaf" and "tongue blind" have a cuteness to them.

The Cogitator said...


Yes, nose deaf and tongue blind are pretty boss, I must concede defeat there. But I still wave my unscented flag for unbescented as the middle porridge between anosmic and nose deaf.


Your points about the relative undetectability of anosmia and ageusia are very apt. Their place on Team Senses suggests how much the body is socially sustained: we don't have somatic deficits unless is conflicts with more pervasive social interactions. In other words, as my ego is rooted in strange ways in my body, so my body is rooted in its interpersonal connection with others. I am not just "I" and I am not alone.

As for the other -ceptions (and I fell in love with proprioception when I learned about it years ago), I think the fundamental sense of which all other -ceptions might just be consciousness itself. Its primal inexhaustibility exists in a myriad of ways which we can "highlight" at different moments under different conditions. This is why all consciousness problems are somatic problems, which is not to say all somatic functions/problems are consciousness. I think the fundamental "intuition of being" in a sensorily indeterminate way roots consciousness as such. But now you probably don't know what I'm talking about so I'll go to bed. ;)


The Cogitator said...

I'm also gonna propose "degusted" (sounds like "disgusted") for ageusic. w00t!