May 19, 2005

Juliet was wrong

Standing at a window overlooking her family orchard in Verona about 700 years ago, Juliet Capulet is reputed to have developed a famous hypothesis which Shakespeare later recorded.  Details may have been lost in translation, transmogrified through the passage of several hundred years before her words were set down, or magnified from nought by the pen of a man whose poetic license has never been paralleled. This is what she hypothesized:

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
The guy smelt pretty damn sweet for Juliet to scent him from a window high above an orchard, but remember, these were the middle ages. And, anyhow, it turns out she was wrong.

Maybe it's no surprise that she was wrong, since she's well known for her tragic mistakes. Yet despite her famously bad judgment, the Rose Hypothesis is oft cited and widely believed. No longer, perhaps! According to this article in today's Guardian, a group of psychologists at Oxford University has determined that words you see affect what you smell. Via the website of the journal Neuron, I located the full reference to the original article:

Cognitive Modulation of Olfactory Processing, Ivan E. de Araujo, Edmund T. Rolls, Maria Inés Velazco, Christian Margot, and Isabelle Cayeux, Neuron, Vol 46, 671-679, 19 May 2005

The full text is here, but I am not sure whether access is free to all, or whether it will remain so. Here is the summary of the article:

We showed how cognitive, semantic information modulates olfactory representations in the brain by providing a visual word descriptor, "cheddar cheese" or "body odor," during the delivery of a test odor (isovaleric acid with cheddar cheese flavor) and also during the delivery of clean air. Clean air labeled "air" was used as a control. Subjects rated the affective value of the test odor as significantly more unpleasant when labeled "body odor" than when labeled "cheddar cheese." In an event-related fMRI design, we showed that the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)/medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) was significantly more activated by the test stimulus and by clean air when labeled "cheddar cheese" than when labeled "body odor," and the activations were correlated with the pleasantness ratings. This cognitive modulation was also found for the test odor (but not for the clean air) in the amygdala bilaterally.

So, by a quite unscientific though not implausible extrapolation, that which we call a rose by the name of a dog turd might not smell half as sweet.

And while we're on the subject, why are there so many different names for roses, but so few for dog turds? Is the intrinsic variation of dog turds so much less?

And while we're not on the subject, Juliet was not trying to rid Romeo of his given name, but of his family's name: she wanted him a Capulet. As a semanticist, I should love to have been born with the name Montague. However, he left no children. Like Romeo, but for different reasons. I won't go into them here, except to say: it ended badly.

Posted by David Beaver at May 19, 2005 02:12 PM