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The Biophilosophy of Smell

The Biophilosophy of Smell research project, which is a unique collaboration between Dennis. Mathew and Benjamin. Young, will concern the nature of the perceptible objects of smell as chemical plumes. While a large number of studies in olfaction have focused on the cellular reception of pure odor molecules and the behavioral response of organisms to precise odor gradients, much less is known regarding the properties of natural odor plumes and its relationship to odor quality and perception. This gap in knowledge is an important issue because it concerns how humans and insect-vectors of disease perceive different smells in their natural environments.


It is commonly thought that the perceptible objects of olfaction are chemical compounds composing large gaseous odors plumes. This research project will look at the application of environmental factors concerning concentration as well as structural properties of the chemical plumes to smells. Our primary focus will be upon the macro properties of gaseous odor plumes in relation to how these generate olfactory qualities i.e. what things smell like. The relation of chemical structures to odor-receptor types in biology is an area that Dr. Mathew specializes in, while Dr. Young researches the olfactory qualities of smell. Our research project builds upon both our respective research strengths to generate a coherent picture of what we know up until now about the nature of smells in relation to their macro chemical properties within odorous clouds.


Following the production of a review article, we will conduct a proof of concept experiment looking at the differences between isotopic solutions of varying concentration plumes and their effect upon perceived olfactory quality. We believe that the experiment will shed light upon the role of macro structural properties of odor plumes as they relate to the structure odor quality relationship at the receptor level of biology. The research conducted will be a true synergy of the theoretical issues within philosophy of olfaction and biological research on the olfactory system’s transduction of smells.

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