Cognitive Aspects of Perfumery

Individuals who exhibit superior athletic, art or academic abilities have always been the subject of intense interest. Not surprisingly, considerable attention has heen focused on understanding the conditions that lead to the development of exceptional expertise among a select few. For the past several decades, cognitive psychologists have made significant advances in understanding the nature and development of expertise, and the insights gained from the study of experts in a variety of fields can be applied to understanding the creativity and artistry exhibited by perfumers. In that spirit, it seems appropriate to share some thoughts about perfumers and the art and science of perfumery from the perspective of cognitive psychology. Specifically, I would like to talk about perfumers as examples of individuals with expertise, and illustrate the differences between novices (nonperfumers) and experts (perfumers) in the context of odor perceptions.

Expertise in Odor Perception

Much has been written about the prerequisites for becoming a perfumer. Chief among these requirements are those involving olfactory ability; namely, sensitivity, discrimination and memory for odors. However, the disparity between novice and expert abilities in these domains is often remarkably small and easily overcome, For example, it is commonly assumed that a perfumer must possess an exceptional degree of olfactory sensitivity to be successful. This intuition has not proven valid. Although some perfumers are capable of exquisite sensitivity, so are many nonperfumers. What seems to be necessary for the development of increased sensitivity is experience, often in the form of simple, repeated exposure to a particular odorant. In many studies that repeatedly test the odor sensitivity of the same individuals, increases in sensitivity to those odorants are quite commonly observed. This improvement is illustrated quite dramatically in a study in which I examined the changes in sensitivity, across six weekly tests, among nonperfumers (novices) to the odorants isobornyl acetate or geraniol. The odor detection thresholds for these odorants increased an average of 256-fold from the first to the sixth assessment. Striking increases in olfactory sensitivity following repeated testing has also been observed by other researchers.

Novices also differ from experts (i.e., perfumers) in their ability to discriminate between similar odorants or to analyze the constituent components in a complex fragrance. This distinction has long been acknowledged; as, for example, when Piesse (1891) noted that “To the unlearned nose, all odours are alike; but when tutored, either for pleasure or profit, no member of the body is more sensitive.” This ability is obviously critical to the perfumer. However, there is evidence that discrimination ability can be learned.

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