Friday, August 19, 2011

The "emperor of scent" Luca Turin - synaesthete or just very, very metaphorical?

Luca Turin is a Lebanon-born American biophysicist and perfume connoiseur who is a major proponent of the vibration theory of olfaction. I've had a look at some of the stuff that he has written about himself and perfumes, and it was a joy to discover that I'm not the only person in the world who takes the world of smell very seriously. I've got to congratulate Turin for writing a book of perfume reviews that is laugh-out-loud funny (to a pefume freak).

I believe there is a connection between my lifelong fascination with smells (good and bad) and my synaesthesia, a belief that is possibly supported by the fact that G. W. Septimus Piesse (brother of Charles Piesse, Colonial Secretary for Western Australia) was a perfumer who apparently had synaesthesia, and was discussed in the fascinating 2004 book about autism and synaesthesia Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins. In 1862 Piesse suggested that the sense of sound and smell are linked in the brain, which has led to the scientific concept of "smound", which rats apparently experience.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing, and I was recently rummaging through a pile of second-hand books for sale, and was pleased to discover a book about Luca Turin. I had previously read Turin's comparison of the smell of the classic fragrance Mitsouko with the sound of Brahms' music in an interview article about Turin in New Scientist magazine, but at the time didn't think this was sufficient as evidence of synaesthesia. Nevertheless, I thought it likely that Turin was a synaesthete, knowing that synaesthesia seems to be associated with exceptional sensory abilities, and Turin clearly has an exceptional nose. Now it appears that I've found evidence. In the biographical book about Luca Turin, The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr, on page 167 of the 2004 Arrow Books paperback edition there is a list of correspondences that Turin experiences (it appears reliably) between specific types of fragrances or commerical perfumes and types of music. For example Guerlain's Mitsouko and Brahms, Beethoven works with an angry tone and the smell of quinolenes, a chemical element of the smell of green peppers. I believe this could be a complex and new-to-science type of synaesthesia, possibly one of the experiences that are on a genuine borderline between metaphorical thinking and synaesthesia. I'd personally agree with many of Turin's associations. In this section of text Turin is quoted as describing a type of music in a possibly cross-sensory manner "The melon notes-helional, for example-strike me as the watery Debussy harmonies, the fourths." I think we all understand that some music can sound watery, but in exactly what way? Is this also synaesthesia?

Burr, Chandler (2002) The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses. New York: Random House, 2002.

Turin, Luca and Sanchez, Tania (2008) Perfumes: The Guide. Viking, 2008.

Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2011) Luca Turin. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2011) Smound. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

O'Hare, Mick (2006) Interview: A nose for controversy. New Scientist. 18 November 2006. Issue 2578.

Collins, Paul (2004) Not even wrong. Bloomsbury, 2004.

Piesse, George William Septimus (1857) The Art of Perfumery: And Methods of Obtaining the Odors of Plants. Project Gutenberg. 2005.

Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2011) Mitsouko (perfume). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.


luca said...

I am in no way a synaesthete

Luca Turin

Lili Marlene said...

It would be nice if there was more info at your Blogger user profile than a first name.

Assuming that you are in fact the scientist Luca Turin, can I ask, what's the deal with the smells and the music? Very metaphorical language? I know that wine-tasting is full of language that looks like synaesthesia or metaphor. Is perfumery the same?

There is some evidence that synaesthesia involving scents might be a characteristic of people who don't categorize themselves as synaesthetes:

luca said...

Yes it's me [email me and find out] and the "deal with the smells and the music" is just old fashioned metaphor.

Synesthesia is something else altogether and the term should be reserved for what are de facto hallucinations from one sense to another.

By the way perfumes are not smells any more than paintings are colors or music notes: a perfume is a message put in a bottle by a human to be read by another human.

The metaphors, I would contend, are in the bottle.
Thanks for saying nice things about our work


Lili Marlene said...

I don't mean to be argumentative, but there are a number of differences between hallucination and synaesthesia. If you're interested in defining hallucination you might like to watch this:

and this paper by a leading synaesthesia researcher, and the papers and pieces that it provoked, tell of the complexity and problems of defining synaesthesia:

Synaesthesia is much more than "crossed wires" or "scrambled senses".

Some Guerlain fragrances are almost stories, but I once paid good money for a bottle of Dior scent and found it was a pretty simple message.

You are not in my big list of famous synaesthetes. Do you object to this blog post? I don't set out to annoy people for no good reason.

Lili Marlene said...

Lili Marlene said...

The links didn't work so here are the details:

Oliver Sacks: What hallucination reveals about our minds. (lecture) Feb 2009 TED.

Defining synaesthesia
Julia Simner
British journal of Psychology.
Article first published online: 11 MAR 2011

DOI: 10.1348/000712610X528305