Per Møller on Memory in the Lower senses and Ep Köster on The role of odour memory in everyday life
Ep Köster (Utrecht University), Per Møller (University of Copenhagen)

November 14, 2013, 5:00pm - 7:00pm
Centre for the Study of the Senses, Institute of Philosophy

United Kingdom

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Thurs 14 Nov, 5.00pm IP CenSes Seminar: Room 243, Senate House, second floor, WC1
Per Møller (Copenhagen):Memory in the Lower senses
Ep Köster(Utrecht): The role of odour memory in everyday life


Møller: Introspection suggests that we can remember stimuli and events in the “lower” senses (all but vision and audition). Whether these memories are genuinely “sensory” or whether they are rather of a verbal nature is not so obvious. In this talk I will present recent data that show that genuine sensory olfactory memory systems do exist and I will argue that olfactory (and taste and flavour) memories have different properties than visual and verbal memory. Incidental learning, as opposed to intentional learning, is rather the rule for lower sense memories and the distinction turns out to be important for the properties of lower sense memory. I will review results which show that (non-semantic) incidentally learned stimuli are remembered as well by elderly people as by young. This is in sharp contrast to most explicit visual and verbal memory results and resembles what is often found for implicit memory. These results might suggest why food preferences seem to be rather constant with age, despite dramatic changes in the perception of smell and flavour with age and further, that memory might play a much more dynamic role for perception and appreciation in the lower senses, than it does in vision and audition. Smelling is much less constrained than a spatio-temporally varying visual stimulus and memories and expectations might therefore play a relatively larger role for olfactory perception than for, e.g., visual perception. In line with the other arguments that olfaction is functionally different from vision, I will present recent data which suggest that even though there might be a “working memory” system in human olfaction, it is probably very different from visual working memory. Memories in the lower senses seem to rely much more on correct rejections than on hits. “Novelty detection”, thus, seems to be particularly important in the lower senses, which makes ecological sense, since the lower senses serve as protective systems with only a very limited behavioural repertoire: inhale or don’t. Identification is arguably a primary goal of visual perception. I will argue that this is not the case for olfaction and other lower senses and will briefly introduce a recent theory, “The Misfit Theory” (Köster, Mojet, Møller, 2013) which provides a new interpretation of the role of implicit olfactory memory for olfactory perception. This theory can account for the data presented here as well as for other observations in olfaction.  


Köster: Most research on olfaction is based on explicit and intentional perception and memory, whereas in normal everyday life olfactory stimuli are mostly picked up incidentally and seldom are explicitly attended to. Nevertheless, they are potent influencers of our life, but they do so mostly silently by influencing our moods and by linking themselves by unconscious associations to our surroundings and life situations providing strong emotional bonds. Few people are aware of the hundreds of usually unnamable odours we encounter each day that influence their behavior and feelings of safety and well-being. In traditional research odours are often ‘objectified’ and treated as things that can be discriminated, identified and named, unrelated to their intrinsically situational significance. Thus, they lose their function as we have shown in a number of experiments on the memory and emotional effects of incidentally (and under natural circumstances learned) odour memories (with Jos Mojet, Per Møller and others). This has led to the formulation of the “Misfit theory of spontaneous conscious odour perception (MITSCOP)”, which claims that odour memory is based on detection of change and novelty detection, rather than on precise recollection of the earlier experienced odour itself. The theory also points out that odours are usually only consciously detected when they do not fit our situational expectations and that odour identification is not the main function of this form of memory, which is primarily concerned with safeguarding and danger detection. More arguments for this theory based on autobiographical memory research and on differences between intentional visual and odour memory will be presented and the unconscious emotional effects of odours will be illustrated in real life settings and by specific tests using projective methods..
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