8.15.2009

Language Scents

I had a thought recently.... follow me.
It's been established that smell is the sense most closely related to memory. Many of us have experienced this (I do constantly): walking through a mall or a park or a place with smells... and something or someone suddenly comes to mind, seemingly out of the blue. A split second later, I realize it was cued by whatever smell I just encountered. Memories flood back very clearly.
So I got to thinking.... one of the necessities of effective language learning is a good memory; the increased retention of information obviously provides a greater return on your investment of time you devote to studying.
I did a cursory google search to see if anyone else had considered this, and there was only a small glimmer of hope. More on that later. I give you: the limbic system.
Wikipedia tells us that "the limbic system (or Paleomammalian brain) is a set of brain structures including the hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, and limbic cortex, which support a variety of functions including emotion, behavior, long term memory, and olfaction."
In as little detail as possible, the other little tidbits of information that seemed relevant were the dentate gyrus, which "is thought to contribute to new memories" and "is notable as being one of a select few brain structures currently known to have high rates of neurogenesis in adult humans." The entorhinal cortex (EC) is an important memory center in the brain. [It] forms the main input to the hippocampus and is responsible for the pre-processing (familiarity) of the input signals." The hippocampus is also a big important chunk of the brain dealing with long term memory. All that is to say that it makes sense that the olfactory system (and it's relation to memory and emotion) easily prompts us to recall very clearly things that may not have crossed our minds in ages.
The wrench in the gears is finding/creating a synesthetic-enough correlation between emotional memories and cold hard linguistic knowledge, which usually doesn't carry any emotional weight. However, if there WERE any relation, think of the impact of having the near-total recall with language as we do when we (arguably involuntarily) recall a long-unthought thought.
But again, in a practical sense, how does one combine the general experience of those two senses in a linguistically relevant way? It didn't seem to make any sense until I found an article written by a doctor working in the field of deaf-blindness who is currently working to use the sense of smell to improve (what I suppose you would call) comprehension of objects and their surroundings.
Unrelated application? Yeah.
Possibly very strong means of communication with someone who has no other means of speaking (as are, to a certain degree, students of a new language)? Yes.

2 comments:

Esprit15d said...

This kind of reminds me of a project I heard about a few years ago to integrate smell into the internet experience. It was rather cumbersome, with base scents, and cartridges one would have to buy. But the idea fascinated me for some of the reasons you enumerated. Hm.

You know where I think this would be the most...doable? Let's say one was in a full-immersion situation, like if someone hypothetically moved to Taiwan, or at the very least someone helped their bible student, say, cook a meal. I could imagine the vocab acquired in an authentic setting of learning a process could be retrieved by the smell of that dish. And in the TESOL class, do remember the method for teaching imperative verbs where the student had to describe how to do something like make rice? Kind of mix that with the authentic experience and you come close to the olfactory association you were describing.

I'm kind of rambling and so fatigued I can't sleep. So if this makes no sense, just let me know on gtalk Monday.

la viajera said...

Interesting.

So, practical application. What if you had something similar to a la nez du vin kit (a wine essence kit). You could have the equivalent of smells such as the beach when doing a lesson where you learned verbs like -to relax -to swim and the associated vocab. Then you could dull the rest of the senses (dimming lights and ensuring quiet). But the beach scene might only work if the student had been to the beach.

It could be useful in teaching food and flowers. At least those would be the easiest.

Very interesting.