At this week’s lab session we were discussing a paper put forward by Marianna – Dual processing streams in chemosensory perception, from Frasnelli et al*. As the title may suggest, this is somewhat outside our normal fare. It is a short paper on the processing of smells and the areas of the brain used in the process. Marianna’s current area of research is in taste and smell elements of HCI, and as such she is using papers like this to give herself a background in the understanding that has been reached on these senses in other disciplines.

Short papers are not necessarily the most accessible way into a new area, with little space for defining concepts for the beginner. This was therefore a surprisingly taxing read, with a certain amount of googling of terms happening on the side. The paper basically tested and showed that the processing of the chemical sense of smell demonstrates a sub-division of processing between localisation and identification, and that this processing separation is similar to that seen in processing the physical senses, such a vision and hearing.

The main reaction of the group was “so what?”. By which we didn’t mean that this was unimportant, just that we couldn’t see what we, in the field of HCI, could do with this information. Marianna’s response was two-fold: first, she wants to know not only what the other sciences know about the senses, but also what they don’t concern themselves with. In this case, the experimenters were very interested in where the smell gets processed, but she is much more interested in how the participants make sense of that smell. Secondly she is looking for new techniques to try (although this paper’s procedure is not something she would use!), as these areas are so new to HCI. And finally she is interested in potentially feeding back to neuroscience. For example, in some cases, explicitation interviews (a technique that Marianna has used with some of her experiments on touch) have been carried out alongside the fMRI scans, and these have helped to explain some of the differences in processing found between the participants.

The discussion as ever veered through a range of topics – some more closely related to the original paper than others! One of Marianna’s interests is in trying to generate taste and smell sensations by stimulating other, more HCI-compatible, senses. We felt that at least this paper suggested that the processing pathways were not entirely dissimilar, so there may still be a chance of this working! Other group members were interested in seeing how the pathways might change if people were missing a sense – e.g. Marianna had interviewed someone born without a sense of taste. There were some questions around the differences in gender and the effects that may have, although given our lack of knowledge of the field there is a good chance that these questions have already been answered.

It was fascinating to read something so far from our normal focus, and to try to understand how we could perhaps bring it into our area. All in all, a very interesting read and discussion.

*Frasnelli, J., Lundström, J. N., Schöpf, V., Negoias, S., Hummel, T., & Lepore, F. (2012). Dual processing streams in chemosensory perception. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6(October), 288. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00288