Mind & Psychology » Perception

The best books on The Senses

recommended by Bianca Bosker

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Is it possible that a flavour or smell could be as refined and elevating an experience as seeing a painting or listening to a piece of music? Journalist and expert sommelier, Bianca Bosker, describes how the process of training her own senses has transformed her experience of the world.

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  • 1

    The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the Social Imagination
    by Alain Corbin

  • 2

    Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell
    by Anthony Synnott, Constance Classen & David Howes

  • 3

    A Natural History of the Senses
    by Diane Ackerman

  • 4

    Taste What You're Missing
    by Barb Stuckey

  • 5

    Making Sense of Taste, Food and Philosophy
    by Carolyn Korsmeyer

Is it possible that a flavour or smell could be as refined and elevating an experience as seeing a painting or listening to a piece of music? Journalist and expert sommelier, Bianca Bosker, describes how the process of training her own senses has transformed her experience of the world.

Bianca Bosker

Bianca Bosker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Cork Dork, a New York Times bestseller about wine, obsession, and the science of taste. She is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Best American Travel Writing, among other publications. The former executive tech editor of The Huffington Post, she is also the author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China.

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I’m interested to know how you got so fascinated by the senses of taste and smell, and also touch to some extent the senses that come to the fore when drinking wine.

It started when I became aware of my own sensory deprivation. I was in no way a wine connoisseur when I embarked on the journey that became Cork Dork. I had a hunch that there was a difference between bottled and boxed wine, but that was about it. My wine adventure started when I stumbled upon this world of cork dorks—by which I mean the hyper-obsessed sommeliers who spend their vacation days at tasting competitions, who train their palates the way Olympians train their bodies, who divorce their spouses to spend more time studying grape flash cards. At the time, I was working as the executive tech editor of the Huffington Post, which was a job that basically involved spending my time at screens writing about things that happened on screens.

These oenophiles living a life of sensory cultivation made me realise that I was living this life of sensory deprivation. In my world of apps and software and social media, there were sights and sounds, but no smells, no tastes, no touch. Smell could only be a bad thing. If something smelt, then it was your co-worker’s lunch, or the trash that you’d forgotten to take out. There are times in life when things find you and trigger something that you’ve managed to bury very deep inside, and these ‘somms,’ intensely focused on physical pleasure and the physical senses of taste and smell, jarred me out of this digital world and made me see how sterile it was. I wanted to know if I could do what they did. Could I taste freshly turned earth in a glass of wine? Would I want to?  And what might change?

One of the things I loved about your book is that we’re following this process from your being a naïve drinker who can’t taste the difference between wines to being incredibly subtle and discovering different ways of speaking about wine and critically assessing the language that’s used, but also the rituals around wine. Could you say just a little bit about how you get from not being able to distinguish flavours and textures to being acutely aware of what you’re experiencing and being able to describe it in a public language?

When I started out on this quest to refine my senses, I didn’t even know if that was physically possible. I’d gotten hooked on binge-watching YouTube videos of sommeliers blind-tasting wines at the ‘Best Sommelier in the World’ competition—which is a real thing—and their ability to decode, via tastes and smells, how, with what, and where—down to a tiny corner of the planet—a bottle had been made. Were they born bloodhounds or could any of us train our noses? Even after I quit my job and started training to become a sommelier, I didn’t know the answer to that. The good news is that research shows any of us can train our senses, and in fact we’re better sniffers than we realize.  I should say that when I embarked on this personal journey, which was also a quest to understand the culture of wine connoisseurship, I came at it with open-minded curiosity, but also some scepticism. I definitely wanted to probe the soul of wine and the poetry of it, but I also wanted to understand the science, and what was and was not bullshit.

“It dawned on me that I wasn’t experiencing the full spectrum of information, nuance, and beauty in the world around me”

This meant that, on the one hand, I was blind tasting with aspiring master sommeliers who trained me according to long-standing traditions. And it also meant, on the other, I was dissecting cadaver brains with neuroscientists in Germany. And so, I think what was unique about my training and what allowed me to progress perhaps faster than usual was my appetite for knowledge from more unorthodox parts of the wine world we rarely get to see. I think that what’s unfortunate is that these different worlds don’t talk to each other nearly as much as they could. I was frustrated, for example, when one of my blind-tasting coaches walked me through the tongue map and the idea that I should be tasting sweetness on the tip of my tongue, sourness on the sides, and so forth. This didn’t inspire much confidence, because in my research I’d discovered that the tongue map had actually been debunked forty-something years before. In fact, this whole notion was based on a mistranslation of a 1901 PhD thesis. And yet it’s still being taught. That to me is problematic because it contributes to this ignorance around two of our five senses

What was it that gave you the confidence to make that leap of faith from a regular job to something which might not result in anything at all?

I would say it was a combination of desperation and voracious hunger. Once it had dawned on me that, by comparison with these cork dorks, I wasn’t experiencing the full spectrum of information, nuance, and beauty in the world around me, I couldn’t not take the plunge. Life is short. We’ve got a finite number of decades on the planet, if we’re lucky. And this idea that I was really neglecting two of the five senses and closing myself off to this additional richness that the world might have to offer literally kept me up at night. So, I was both desperate to figure out what was out there, and voraciously hungry to know what I was missing, both in wine and in the wider world.

It strikes me that although the books you’ve chosen here are focussed on two senses—taste and smell—which are very interrelated anyway, the whole process of what you’ve been doing involves other senses as well. Obviously, there’s a sense of touch of the texture of things that you eat or drink. There’s also the visual aspect, and, with food particularly, there’s even an auditory element. All of those come into play.

All of our senses are more interconnected than we realise. Colour can influence our perception of tastes and smells, ditto for music, or textures. You can’t understand one without embracing them all. One book I recommend, but actually left of my list, is Charles Spence’s The Perfect Meal, which dives into this in greater detail.

There’s this notion that Ernst Gombrich talks about with paintings he calls ‘the beholder’s share’: what you bring in terms of expectations and prior knowledge about the kinds of things that you’re going to see. It seems to me that this is an element too in all of this. The knowledge of wine or the knowledge of food affect how you taste, and may actually affect what you experience. People often talk as if the senses act like blank canvases when you taste things, but you’ve got all sorts of prior expectations that dramatically affect our interpretation.

Absolutely. What we think of as ‘flavour’ is not just taste and smell. Flavour is what we taste, smell, hear, who we’re eating with, how much we paid for a bottle of wine, what we know about it, how long we waited to get a table at that trendy new restaurant. It comprises a messy mixture of things happening inside and outside of us.  And yet I think we have a blind spot when it comes to wrapping our brains around the true nature of flavour. We tend to focus a great deal on what we’re perceiving rather how we perceive it.

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In A Natural History of the Senses, one of the books on my list, Diane Ackerman posits that “our senses define the edge of consciousness”. I love that. Our experience of the world is only as nuanced as the faculties through which we take it in. And yet, even with our foodie fixation, we spend so much time finding things that will taste better without teaching ourselves to taste well. We agonise over the freshness of the seabass on the menu without understanding retronasal olfaction and how to savour the full breadth of aromatics in that dish. The books that I’ve chosen examine the filters through which we take in the world, and especially the filters of taste and smell that we so often neglect.

Your first book is The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination by Alain Corbin. This sounds fascinating just from the title. I’ve never read it.

You’re in for a treat. Like that famous Churchill quote that “history is written by the victors,” history is actually also written by the visualists. We rely so much on the eye-witness, the first-hand observer. There’s a bias in favour of defining history by what can be seen. What we lose—and what Corbin’s book provides—is a historical account that relies on all five of the senses, and especially olfaction. It looks at the way that smell has played a powerful role in the evolution of science, in the evolution of cities, in class identities and in politics and in sanitation.

“Versailles used to be a cesspool: it smelt of urine and dead cats”

He explores, for example, why Europeans refused to wash, then how they learned to shower. Once upon time, people assumed they could cleanse themselves by sweating. The Foul and the Fragrant is also an absolute delight to read. It is one of the most carnal books I’ve ever read. It is messy and it is disgusting, and, as a result, it is a joy. Smell is usually very difficult to translate into words, but Corbin does a phenomenal job. We hear about “morbific vapours” and decaying cheese that is “acidocacious”, the smells of blood and bones and burning. We fail to realize how deodorized modern life is, and Corbin reminds us, telling us about the dizzying stench of cities with their sewers, slaughterhouses, you name it.  Versailles, which we now think of as this Eden, used to be a cesspool: it smelt of urine and dead cats. They were roasting pork and slaughtering things right outside the palace.

It sounds incredibly imaginative as well in its imaginative reconstructions. But wouldn’t people have become desensitised to all these things? If you’re in a world where there are very strong odours, isn’t it like the smell of your own house where you lose that recognition that you’re actually smelling something?

Corbin is a historian, so he draws on a lot of first-hand descriptions from writers and intellectuals and scientists working at the time. It doesn’t sound like they got too used to the smell of raw sewage flowing through the streets of Paris.

I suppose there are the contrasts too. If there are so many different smells, and you go outside, you’re suddenly hit by the street smell.

Yes. Part of what intrigues me is that fact that we’ve lost those specific stinks. We have preserved the buildings from that period of time, we have streets that date back hundreds of years, but the olfactory signature of a place disappears, especially in the present day, when we’ve become obsessed with deodorising the spaces that we occupy, and ourselves. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful that cities don’t smell like sewers. But this book sheds light on the fact that this progression is not inevitable. And it’s also a reminder to pay attention to the sensory richness that we might be losing, rather than just getting rid of odours before we’ve even stopped to savour or recognise them.

The second book you’ve chosen is Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell by Anthony Synnott, Constance Classen, and David Howes. This is a cultural history as well, so your first two choices are in the same genre.

As a journalist I enjoy reading books that get me as close as possible to first-hand sources of information. I’ll definitely admit to a bias on this list towards researchers and academics, and I think part of that is because these writers have very intimate relationships with primary sources, and are generous in sharing them. These books are also great starting points for inspiration that’ll send you down even deeper rabbit holes. Like Corbin’s book, Aroma is one of the rare histories that emphasize smell, but it is far more expansive in scope than Corbin’s volume. The authors’ contention is essentially that smell has been silenced in modernity, and the book is an attempt to break this olfactory silence, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors.

“History has under appreciated the very physical, carnal, bodily experience”

It’s a crash course in the changing notions around smell over time, and at the same time it’s this really delightful journey through these lost odours. They write about the scent of the most famous perfume of Ancient Egypt, and my god what I wouldn’t give for a whiff of that! I’m so curious. Again, we can see the pyramids but we have so little information about what life smelt like and what life tasted like. Maybe it’s because we have traditionally elevated and valued other senses above the more physical senses of taste and smell. History has under appreciated the very physical, carnal, bodily experience. I love these books, and this one, in particular, for remedying that.

I can imagine someone saying ‘So what? Who cares what an 18th-century street smelt like?’ Is that the bias towards the visual: that we’re interested in the proportions of the buildings but we’re not interested in the other sensory aspects? Why care about smell and taste so much?

Because they’ve had a far more powerful effect on why we do things the way we do than we realise. In The Foul and the Fragrant, for example, we see the way that urban planning and the shape of cities were decided in no small part because of stench. You see it in New York as well: The banishment of factories out to deep parts of Brooklyn, and displacement of slaughterhouses to the edges of Manhattan was determined by odours. Because we live in these more deodorised environments we don’t realise that the way things are today – literally including the shape of the streets – relates, in no small part, to smell. In another example, we tend to view smelling as rude. It’s rude to remark on what you notice about your friend’s body aroma. It’s rude to sniff yourself, or your food, or anything, because it implies there’s something wrong. Because I now embrace this very olfactory-focused mindset, when I go out to eat sushi, I sniff every piece. I’m always wondering if the chef takes it as an insult. Does he think that I’m checking the fish to see if it’s fresh? Because really, I’m just trying to deepen the pleasure of that bite.

“Urban planning and the shape of cities were decided in no small part because of stench”

This perception that smelling things and each other is impolite was a very deliberate shift brought about because of class upheavals, politics, and religion. It wasn’t an accident. That book Aroma argues that smell became threatening at some point. I should add there was also this elevation of sight over smell. If you think about it, when we see one other, we engage with each other’s exteriors, but smell reflects the interior self. It’s something that we guard a little more closely, that we haven’t decided to share with the world. So, the authors make this argument that smell became threatening because it was seen as more personal and more revealing, in a way that was not deliberate. To summarise, I think that taste and smell are so inextricably bound up with cultural practices, and even physical landscapes, that to ignore them means robbing ourselves of a much deeper understanding of how and why we live the way that we do.

Let’s move on to your next choice. This is A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman. Is this another historical account or is it a natural history in the sense of a contemporary look at the senses?

I’m cribbing here a little bit, but I think it’s a great description: it is a grand tour of the senses with Diane Ackerman playing tour-guide. It’s not a narrative, it’s really more of a highlight reel of interesting observations and colourful stories about the senses. Just as an example, she writes about how Napoleon asked Joséphine not to bathe for two weeks before he saw her because he wanted to relish her full personal odour. She writes about how Victorian lovers, as a token of their affection, would rub apples under their armpits and exchange them to share their sweat-smell with one another. It’s little things like that that stick with you. I find it to be a haunting book in the sense that I’ll be going about my daily routine and then suddenly have these little flashbacks to observations that she made. She takes you to places that you can’t help but return to over and over again, that make you think a little bit differently. It doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, but it’s a very pleasurable little tour.

Now that you have trained your senses to a high level, do you find that you identify the smells of people clearly? You must be attuned to and aware of all kinds of different fragrances and odours. Occasionally, you meet someone and they have a distinctive smell. Do you find that you’re more aware of that as you move around? Obviously in the subway, it must be pretty easy. Do you think you could recognise people by their smell, like you can recognise wines?

Absolutely. I think we each have our own terroir. For sure. This process of embracing these forgotten senses has completely transformed my experience of the world. That’s manifest in everything from relishing these momentary escapes into beauty, to picking up on nuances about the rhythm of the block where I live in New York. It’s funny, I have recently noticed that I’m also much more sensitive to smells than I used to be, in a way that is sometimes a liability. If I get into a car that smells very strongly, it’s very hard for me. This is a bit personal, but speaking of the smells of people, I think that we’re so attuned to our own smells that we can’t smell ourselves, but recently I have been able to smell myself. It is a mindfuck. It is so weird, and I haven’t yet figured out why it’s happening. I don’t know if I’m using a different combination of shampoo or conditioner, or if it’s something about the way I’m washing my clothes. It’s become a mystery. It’s funny that you asked that because I do think that, in the same way that you judge a wine because of its smell, I see people a little bit differently because of their smells.

In a sense your book is partly a self-help book. It’s not just an account of what happened, but it’s teaching us to be more sensitive to senses that are neglected by most of us most of the time. It’s interesting to know what the consequences of this can be because, obviously, everything around us has potentially got some kind of smell. Very few things are completely inert when it comes to smell.

The effect of training my senses is similar to having spent years in a foreign country without knowing the language and then suddenly being able to understand the conversations going on around you. When you finally learn the language, you realize how much you’ve been missing. I even take pleasure from bad odours. I think that being able to distinguish that the smell of the subway on a given day is unwashed human rather than stale urine actually does add something to my life, as dubious as that sounds.

Is it like hearing different intervals musically? It’s quite satisfying if you can recognise an interval, even if it’s a discord.

Yes, totally, and it makes memories sharper. Being able to put language to a particular odour is a very powerful thing. It allows you to immerse yourself in an experience in a much deeper way.

The title of the next book suggests that it is in that vein, thinking about how you could be missing out on something.

I would say Taste What You’re Missing is a much needed user manual on our own senses. Barb Stuckey is a food inventor who works for the lab Mattson, which creates potato chips and cookies and condiments for different food manufacturers. This book is a very science-heavy approach to the care, keeping and savouring of your senses.

“We are really multisensory creatures, so all of our senses are acting on the others”

It has everything from exercises that you can do to understand retro-nasal olfaction or become attuned to acidity on your tongue, to these explanations of why we perceive the world the way that we do. Going back to what we were talking about before, I think she does a very good job of diving into how we are really multisensory creatures, so all of our senses are acting on the others. I think the payoff of the book is instantaneous.

Because it’s a practical book with exercises or because it alerts you to things you hadn’t previously noticed?

Both, for sure. I think that the senses are our filter of the world. Stuckey’s book makes us understand the limitations and potential of those filters, so we can understand how we can get more out of life, why we pick up on what we pick up on, and how we are biased and influenced in ways that we don’t realise. I would say this is the manual on our senses that we always needed but may never have taken the time to read.

What about your last choice? This is a philosophy book by Carolyn Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste, Food and Philosophy.

Despite the title, she does deal with all five of the senses. What she lays out very effectively and persuasively is the origins of our denigration of taste and smell and our celebration of the other senses. She traces the philosophical roots of our bias against these chemical senses.

In a nutshell, what is the bias? What is its origin? Why should we be reluctant to talk about the senses? I mean, people talk about sensuality; people enjoy food, people enjoy drink, people enjoy the feel of sunshine on their skin. There are all kinds of non-visual and non-auditory things that we enjoy. Why on earth would we denigrate them?

She fingers Plato and Aristotle as being the ones that started the whole thing. And the reasons for the denigration of the senses have changed over time. With the rise of Christianity, for example, there was also the idea that smells were savage and appealed to our baser instincts. This is also similar to the arguments offered by Plato. Plato describes our tastes and smells and appetites as the savage beast chained up with man. I will say that this book deals not only with taste, in the sensory sense, but also taste, in the aesthetic sense. On that topic, it also looks at how gustatory and olfactory experiences became incompatible with higher art and these spiritually elevating artistic experiences. So, what I found so powerful about her book was the way that it picks apart the origins of our ‘visualist’ nature and the origins of our biases against some of the senses. I found that very helpful because it holds a mirror up to ourselves. It illuminates biases of which we are not even aware, and suggests that there may be an alternate way of seeing the world that doesn’t put taste and smell at the bottom of the totem pole and that doesn’t suggest an aria or a painting is always more refined and elevating than a bite of food.

Is there a J S Bach of the palette?

That’ a very difficult question. It’s a question that’s hard to do justice to in just a brief moment. As one of my sommelier mentors said: There are wines that can make you feel small in the way that a piece of music or a painting does. I’ve been lucky enough to have some of those bottles. There are things like old Champagne that have stopped me in my tracks and made me think a little bit differently about the universe and my place in it. And I have heard pieces of music that have done the same thing. So, it’s not impossible to find the Bach of wine. And I should say that I would love to be on that journey. If someone wants me to find the Bach or Mozart of wine, then I’m game.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

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Bianca Bosker

Bianca Bosker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Cork Dork, a New York Times bestseller about wine, obsession, and the science of taste. She is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Best American Travel Writing, among other publications. The former executive tech editor of The Huffington Post, she is also the author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China.