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Consciousness and scents: about perfumes and qualia research

Do you love perfumes? How do they relate to consciousness?

How my past aroma addition connects to AI and consciousness research

Some years ago, for a period of my life, I developed a veritable perfume addiction. Every day I spent some time sniffing and trying to sort out components, quality etc. The costs were substantial, since some perfumes come at a price tag of more than 400 Euro. The stock exchange made it possible then! Note: I never went THERE.

A huge help with understanding the complexity of this subject was the book "Perfumes: the Guide" by Luca Turin. It contained hundreds of descriptions of smells and aromas, for which I had had no language until then. The book is witty and educational. Highly recommended as a school of perception, even if the selection of perfumes is time-bound.

Smelling with psychedelics

Some years later, I discovered that our everyday sense of smell is like a weak candle compared to a stadium floodlight: in an Ayahuasca ceremony, I began to smell people from meters away (which is why in such ceremonies it was forbidden to wear perfumes). It can be an adverse experience to smell a mix of lavender, sweat and Santo Palo wood, the typical mystical scent in such ceremonies.

And again some years later, when (legally) microdosing, I could ride on a bike through the shopping mall, diving into and out of aromatic clouds wafting out of shop doors. Leather then yeast, then soap (with "Lush" soap shops being a special torture). Or, I would walk in a cloud of lavender-sweat when I walked in the wake of an old lady at 10 meters distance. It´s a mixed blessing, and I am happy that "the doors of perception" aren´t always that wide open!

Unfortunately, this extremely enhanced perception has fallen prey, it seems, to some kind of habituation. It would still be nice to have it as option to change one´s sense of "qualia" (see below).

Can humans compete with dogs in smelling?

You may be in for a surprise: Yes! But, that´s not the established view.

OpenAi chatbot 2023/03, prompt: "how precise is the sense of smell of dogs".

A dog's sense of smell is incredibly precise and powerful. It is estimated that a dog's sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than a human's sense of smell. Dogs have approximately 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to a human's six million.

This is what we thought: dogs are incomparably better, and in some sense they are. However, is this totally true?

No longer, if one believes Andrew Huberman ahd his guest (Huberman & Sobel, 2023). According to them, humans have extraordinary smell too. Eg, we can smell 0.2 parts per billion of the aroma that is added to cooking gas (mercaptan/methanetio). Thus, astonishingly, "humans can smells around them as well as dogs do". (Huberman & Sobel, 2023).

However, I would leave the specifics of this statement open until I researched it further. I can confirm though, that the normal sense of smell can be improved by felt several 100%s through Ayahuasca (see above).

The neglected sense of smell in Sam Harris´ Daily Meditations

Later still, I began to meditate. First, with Culadasa´s "The Mind Illuminated", then in the Mahamudra/Dzogchen tradition, which I had come to know through Daniel P Brown.

Sam Harris always uses at least two senses as meditation objects, eg auditory and visual. Or kinesthetic and auditory.

What I had noticed in his 100+ meditations was the near-total absence of the sense of smell as a sense-door or concentration object.

Here is the one single passage I could find in ca. 100 meditations (no guarantee though that I have nothing overlooked!. )

Experience itself is continually renewing itself. Simply rest at the edge of this waterfall. Sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, thoughts, pleasant, and unpleasant, everything is changing, moment to moment.

This pronounced absence just shows how underrated smell usually is.

Consciousness and scents as qualia: the example of "redness"

When I then read stuff about consciousness and meditation, I came across the eternal question what consciousness is in the first place. One answer is that "must feel like something to be x". This formulation was coined by the author the article "What is it like to be a bat?"

Feeling like something is tied in with experiencing "something". This "something" for us humans are sense impressions, including the sense of our own consciousness. They are called "qualia".

A qualia is the sensation that things have particular properties. A prime quoted example of this is the colour red. The "redness" of "red" things is the qualia (or qualium?).

Of course, nothing in nature "is" red. Simply stated, it's vibrations all the way down (or whatever). But we still cannot fully understand how qualia arise.

For some researchers and philosophers, the experience of "something" is a fundamental sign of something having consciousness. This "something" is called "qualia" (as in qualities). However, no one knows so far, how qualia can be experienced. This touches the so-called hard question in neuroscience, cognitive science and philosophy: no one can say, how specifically qualia are generated in the brain/mind.

However, also in this discussion context, the sense of smell doesn´t figure very highly in illustrative examples. An exception may be the rose, the scent of which is sometimes used as an illustration. The "rose-ness" of the rose scent, cannot be explained through the composition of the aroma molecules entering the nose. It must be "something" in the brain that translates molecules into "rose-ness".

An entire article on scent as qualia

I confess that the QRI research is way above my intellectual pay grade, when it comes down to mathematics and statistics. It is stuffed with researchers on math, psychedelics, and artificial intelligence that go at the problem of consciousness via the qualia phenomenon.

However, for a start here is a practical tip:

For a special occasion you want to remember in a personal and characteristic way, I advise you to pick two or three essential oils (e.g. violet, peony, and guava) and mix them for the first time that very day. Example: this past New Year’s Eve I wore a combination of pear and violet, which has now become a sensory symbol of the occasion for me. (A., Meyer, H., & Gómez-Emilsson, A. 2020).

This is based on the fact, that the first appearance of a smell "etches" it into the brain into a particular way (Huberman & Sobel, 2023). So, there is a practical application of knowledge around consciousness and scents!

To be continued!


Huberman, A., & Sobel, N. (2023, May 1). Huberman Lab - Dr. Noam Sobel: How Smells Influence Our Hormones, Health & Behavior. Google Podcasts. Huberman, A., & Sobel, N. (2023, May 1). Huberman Lab - Dr. Noam Sobel: How Smells Influence Our Hormones, Health & Behavior. Google Podcasts.

Dr. Sobel explains his lab’s research on the biological mechanisms of smell (“olfaction”) and how sensing odorants and chemicals in our environment impacts human behavior, cognition, social connections, and hormones

A., Meyer, H., & Gómez-Emilsson, A. (2020, February 22). Perfumery as an Art Form. Qualia Computing. Retrieved March 28, 2023, from

Martin, C. (2019, December 16). Is Palo Santo Endangered? The New York Times.

If behind firewall:

Turin, L., & Sanchez, T. (2009b). Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. Profile Books(GB).

Qualia Research Institute. (n.d.).


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