Tuesday, 27 September 2005

Cheddar Cheese, B.O. & Cognitive Modulation of Olfactory Processing "Cognitive Modulation of Olfactory Processing" (Neuron 46, no. 4) has implications for literary theory which, were it not for today's extreme case of density, I would certainly tease out. The researchers 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." [...] The important new point being made in this paper is that high-level cognitive inputs, such as the sight of a word, can influence the activations in brain regions that are activated by olfactory stimuli such as the anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala. Moreover, the high-level cognitive influence can modulate affective ratings of pleasantness and the brain regions such as the anterior cingulate/medial orbitofrontal areas where the activations are correlated with the pleasantness of odors. I momentarily thought the emphasized phrase above meant that these researchers were familiar with De Man. That the materiality of the signifier has finally been accepted by the scientific community. Then: Use of a word label as the cognitive input ensured that the cognitive input was high level and semantic. If we had used a picture of cheese or of a body part, this could have been a lower level association, in that neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex respond to visual stimuli such as the sight of food. These neuroscientists clearly have not read their De Man: pictures of cheddar cheese would have created lower-level associations than the words "cheddar cheese." I imagine this study has implications for any philosophical school which assumes the disconnect of signifier from signified. I wish I could wrap my head around what those implications would be but I'm having a hard enough time wrapping my head around simple arithmetic today. Higher-order cognitive functions like "thinking about poststructuralist accoutns of language" are out of the question. Full disclosure: I may have done this to myself. I've listened to Danger Doom's The Mouse and the Mask three times through today. MF Doom's probably rap's most gifted lyricist and DJ Danger Mouse is on an absolute tear--the tiny falsetto trapped in my temple sings "feels good" on the quarter hour all day long--but for despite all that talent the lyric lodged in my brain belongs to Brak: Check me out, my name is Brak. I got a mom and a dad and a yard out back. We sit by the pool and we nibble our snacks, then we eat a big lunch and we all take naps. Why'd the beat stop?

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