Visual Versus Olfactory

Visual Versus Olfactory

I like to remind myself that I don’t experience the world around me the same way that my dog experiences the world. One of the biggest differences for us is that as a human I primarily experience the world by picking up on visual cues, whereas my dog primarily experiences the world through olfactory cues. My smelling ability isn’t very good, but my vision is pretty great. My dog’s vision isn’t very good, but her smelling is phenomenal. “Humans are better equipped for sight than for smell,” writes Mary Roach in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, “We process visual input ten times faster than olfactory.”
While we can smell, hear, and sense pressure changes on our skin, it is primarily our eyesight that helps us perceive and move about our world. We gain more information from looking at something than we do from smelling, tasting, and even feeling that same thing. That is why so much of our art is visual, why we paint our homes and cars, and why movies and videogames are able to keep our attention so well. Our brains pick up on and process visual stimuli much quicker than other stimuli.
In the human brain, a huge amount of space is dedicated to visual processing. Much more of our brains matter is dedicated to visual processing than olfactory processing, as Roach’s quote above indicates. This is why our brains are so much quicker at decoding and deciphering visual stimuli. In other animals, such as my dog, the part of the brain dedicated to visual processing is not as large relative to other brain regions. My dog has more brain space dedicated to olfactory processing than visual processing, relative to my brain, and thus perceives the world acting on different primary stimuli.
In the book The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich shares research which suggests that certain visual activities, like reading, change the structure of the brain. In the case of reading, the brain space dedicated to processing visual symbols grows as one reads more and the brain tends to give up space related to facial recognition. We get better at reading quickly, but worse at remembering faces.  In Gulp, Roach explains that this kind of process is likely taking place very early on in childhood development. She quotes a scientist who she interviewed that explains that parents of infants go out of their way to label and identify objects that can be visually observed, but parents do not go out of their way to label sounds, smells, or other stimuli. We can spend hours identifying and labeling the tiny differences that we can observe in everything from different species of bugs to 1000 piece puzzles, but we don’t often spend a lot of time differentiating between all the aromas in the smell of coffee, all the different flavors in a slice of chocolate cake, or all the different sounds in an orchestra. In these instances, we take all the different components and experience them as one, unless we train to identify all the different components.
Our visual processing is truly impressive, but it is worth recognizing how much we rely on what we can see, and why. The world is a lot bigger than just what our minds can process from the visual information that we take in. Remembering how much of our brain is dedicated to visual processing can hep us better contextualize our experiences of the world and recognize when we are being overly biased toward visual information. Malcolm Gladwell’s final podcast of his most recent season, all about the power and potential of dogs’ olfactory processing, is a great reminder of why we shouldn’t be too biased toward what we can see.
Polygamy, Eviction, & Community Investment

Polygamy, Eviction, & Community Investment

In The WEIRDest People in the World Joseph Henrich argues that ending polygamous marriage helped strengthen people’s sense of community by allowing more men to father children and have a reason to invest in the future. His argument is that in polygamous societies the highest status men attract multiple wives, making it harder for lower status men to get married and have children. Without prospects for a wife or family, these men become more transient, are more willing to take risks, and are less committed to any single place or community. Only allowing one wife per high status man means that lower status men can get married, have children, and find a reason to invest in their communities.
This idea from Henrich supports an argument made by Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. Not writing about marriage and family policy, but instead about housing policy, Desmond also argues that transient individuals with no future prospects harm the development of community. He writes, “neighbors who cooperate with and trust one another can make their streets safer and more prosperous. But that takes time. Efforts to establish local cohesion and community investment are thwarted in neighborhoods with high turnover rates. In this way, eviction can unravel the fabric of a community.” 
Community requires long-term relationships, investments in people and places, and a commitment to the future. Henrich argues that giving men the opportunity to get married and build families provides these community pre-requisites. Desmond argues that the American system of evictions undermines these requirements. I think that looking at these two arguments together is interesting, and reinforces both.
Low-income tenants who face eviction, whether men or women, lack community and the benefits it provides. Their transient nature in places makes it hard for them to invest in relationships and doesn’t give them hope that the place they live can be better in the future.  They underinvest in the places they live, hurting the community for themselves and others. Single men in polygamous societies are similar. They can’t find a wife and engage in the community in a complete way, and also disinvest from the community, harming community growth and safety for everyone.
What is important to recognize is that community requires people with a commitment to a place and reason to invest in growth and development. Individuals need to feel that they are in a place where they can achieve their desires and where they feel they can be socially accepted to connect with others. When people do, they can create real communities that help make life better for everyone. When they don’t they can create problems and havoc that holds communities back.