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Learning to Smell: Olfactory Perception from Neurobiology to Behavior [Hardcover]

Donald A. Wilson , Richard J. Stevenson

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Book Description

11 May 2006

Written by a neurobiologist and a psychologist, this volume presents a new theory of olfactory perception. Drawing on research in neuroscience, physiology, and ethology, Donald A. Wilson and Richard J. Stevenson address the fundamental question of how we navigate through a world of chemical encounters and provide a compelling alternative to the "reception-centric" view of olfaction.

The major research challenge in olfaction is determining how the brain discriminates one smell from another. Here, the authors hold that olfaction is generally not a simple physiochemical process, but rather a plastic process that is strongly tied to memory. They find the traditional approach—which involves identifying how particular features of a chemical stimulus are represented in the olfactory system—to be at odds with historical data and with a growing body of neurobiological and psychological evidence that places primary emphasis on synthetic processing and experiential factors.

Wilson and Stevenson propose that experience and cortical plasticity not only are important for traditional associative olfactory memory but also play a critical, defining role in odor perception and that current views are insufficient to account for current and past data.

The book includes a broad comparative overview of the structure and function of olfactory systems, an exploration into the mechanisms of odor detection and olfactory perception, and a discussion of the implications of the authors' theory. Learning to Smell will serve as an important reference for workers within the field of chemical senses and those interested in sensory processing and perception.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1 edition (11 May 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801883687
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801883682
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 16 x 3 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,053,498 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Essential reading for any student or researcher entering, or already working, in the field of olfaction.

(Graham Bell ChemoSense)

An important contribution that deserves to be widely read... It is a landmark that may reshape efforts in this field.

(Rehan M. Khan and Noam Sobel Nature Neuroscience)

A recommended pick for any college-level health library holding.

(Midwest Book Review)

This well-written book deals with a relevant topic in a new and refreshing manner; you can add it to your psychology library with confidence that it will be both interesting and informative.

(Stephen F. Davis PsycCRITIQUES)

This is a must-read for olfaction researchers... And is currently the best 'introduction to olfaction' that is available. I highly recommend this book.

(Noam Sobel Quarterly Review of Biology)

This new view of olfactory cognition brings to bear many fascinating possibilities for future study in human response to odor stimulus that can have application in medicine and commercial sales.

(Biology Digest)

About the Author

Donald A. Wilson is a professor of zoology at the University of Oklahoma. Richard J. Stevenson is a professor of psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Latest, Greatest book on Olfaction 30 July 2006
By David H. Peterzell PhD PhD - Published on Amazon.com
The biggest felonies in sensory science have to do with equating (1) the physical stimulus, or (2) early neural signals, with psychological perception. For instance, as long as a vision scientist confuses wavelength with color, he will have no tenable scientific understanding of color, and he will at best publish confusing research. Alternatively, if he thinks that he can understand color based on the simple outputs of three cone photoreceptors, he will remain in the dark, so to speak.

Perhaps it is not fair to accuse most olfactory scientists of the aforementioned felony. However, most of them, apparently, have focused on the front end of system, attempting to understand how chemicals are transduced into neural signals and represented in the olfactory system. If their explanation of odor detection and discrimination ends there, they've blown it.

The authors suggest that, historically, researchers have mostly attempted to determine how a chemical stimulus is represented in the olfactory system, without considering context and learning.

However, the authors note that this perspective is at odds with considerable neurobiological and psychological data, which demonstrate the importance of perceptual learing (i.e., synthetic processing and experiential factors) as opposed to the structural features of the stimulus as critical for odor discrimination. In reviewing the evidence, the authors conclude that the initial odorant features are not consciously accessible, and that this extraction is at best a first necessary stage for subsequent cortical synthetic processing. "Cortical synthetic coding reflects an experience-dependent process that allows synthesis of novel co-occurring features, similar to processes used for visual object coding. Thus, we propose that experience and cortical plasticity are not only important for traditional associative olfactory memory (e.g. fear conditioning, maze learning, and delayed-match-to-sample paradigms), but also play a critical, defining role in odor discrimination."

So, this book is on target because it frees itself from the shackles of simple models of chemical pattern recognition.

I'm not an expert on olfaction. My appreciation of this book was greatly enhanced by reading a very good introductory chapter on olfaction. This chapter appeared in Wolfe et al (Sensation & Perception, 2005), and was authored primarily (I believe) by Rachel Herz. This chapter included many informative illustrations, and the textbook website at Sinauer included an excellent section on sensory memory cues based on Herz' research. (I wish this book had colorful illustrations).

The authors do a superb job of comparing olfaction and olfaction research to research on the other senses, in particular the visual sense. They note the many similarities among sensory systems, and use these similarities to inform their analyses and their research. Moreover, they integrate their understanding of learning, memory and pattern recognition into the theoretical approach.

The integrative nature of this book was definitely a plus. If you are a psychophysicist or cognitive scientist, then it is hard to disagree with the authors on the key points of their theory.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A review of the physiology of olfactory systems and mechanics of detection enhances this excellent discourse. 14 Oct 2006
By Midwest Book Review - Published on Amazon.com
LEARNING TO SMELL: OLFACTORY PERCEPTION FROM NEUROBIOLOGY TO BEHAVIOR is written by a neurobiologist and psychologist and provides a new theory of olfactory perception, making it a recommended pick for any college-level health library holding. The major research in the area lies in determining how the brain identifies and separates smells: chapters reviews research approaches and propose that experience and cortical plasticity combine to play a defining role in odor perception. A review of the physiology of olfactory systems and mechanics of detection enhances this excellent discourse.

Diane C. Donovan

California Bookwatch
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