But what about vision?

Ann-Sophie Barwich
3 min readMar 9, 2024

This one is placed right in the center of my academic bingo card.

I work on the sense of smell. Every time I give a talk to unravel the insights we can gain from studying the intricacies of the olfactory system with its seeming perceptual idiosyncrasies, I can start a countdown until that one question comes up in the audience: “But what about vision…”

It used to annoy the crap out of me, frankly. Now, I have a repertoire of answers, depending on the context in which this question pops up, and whether such a question was raised out of genuine curiosity (more power to you!) or as a form of academic one-upmanship (poor bastard).

So, what about vision? From vision, we know how much prior assumptions and knowledge affect what we perceive. Why don’t we apply this seemingly obvious knowledge, then? Why do we then not apply the insight that our understanding of mind and brain has been shaped profoundly by our models of the visual system… such that when we encounter other approaches to perception, we only see vision — again and again and again? Is this because everything in the mind and brain is like vision or because everything you encounter appears like a nail since you have learned to work with a hammer? In other words, you may overlook the parts that I have shown you with olfaction because you filtered everything through your visual lens.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think that people need to be able to explain their ideas to a broader audience. Still, I emphasize that this is a tango that requires two players. Give people the benefit of understanding and attribute them some level of intelligence. So, if you have someone working on a topic such as the sense of smell for over a decade, you better believe that this person has thought about the comparison with vision more than once. In other words, consider how you frame that question if it genuinely interests you. What do you want to know? Think about the difference between these two questions:

“But in vision, we have perceptual variation, too! So, what is so special about smell then, huh?” (GOTCHA! Me = smart! … Some academic philosophers love to pose questions like this. Just… don’t.)

Or:

“From what you are saying, it sounds like perceptual variation in olfaction is not necessarily the same as perceptual variation in vision. You gave a few examples of variation in olfaction, such as X, Y, Z. Can you talk more about how these examples differ from visual variation (such as X, Y, Z), and what we can specifically infer from that?”

The difference in question is noticeable. One is about having a real conversation. It prompts the speaker to clarify certain claims — by offering a shared standpoint that a speaker can use to pick up their conversation partner from where both stand. In fact, we may both learn something from such an exchange, as I am keen on having conversations with people to also expand my ways of thinking about the senses.

(So, what about vision? Well, I do think the visual system is possibly the best thing ever since sliced bread. Then again, there is garlic bread…)

--

--