Smell, Taste, and Emotion

NeuroThursday is wafting by this week for a piece on smell, taste, and emotion! The full text is posted here, below the Twitter link. You can also find a ThreadReader version at the very bottom.

Inhale deeply, and enjoy the aroma of #NeuroThursday, because this week I want to talk about smell, taste, and emotion – inspired by Tina Connolly‘s Nebula- and Hugo-finalist novelette, “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections.”

If you haven’t read it, it’s a wonderful story about memory, food, cruelty, and empathy. But you don’t need to read it for this thread. I’m here to talk about neuroscience, not pastry-magic. https://www.tor.com/2018/07/11/the-last-banquet-of-temporal-confections-tina-connolly/

Tastes and smells are notoriously emotional. Smells can evoke a flood of memories, with all their associations. Freshly-cut grass, your partner’s favorite flowers, the spices of your favorite meal, or the ammoniac strike of a campground toilet. Why so strong?

The first step is to realize that by “taste and smell,” we’re really just talking about smell. Most of the experience you get when enjoying food – the stuff we think of as “taste” – comes from the nose, not the tongue.

(Try eating with your nose clamped shut. Or don’t. It’s terrible.)

So now we’re talking just about smell. This sense works via 10-20 million olfactory neurons (labeled in image as “receptor cell”). They’re embedded in “olfactory epithelium” at the roof of your nose. (Epithelium = body’s surface layers, whether skin or a hollow space.)

Olfactory Neurons & Epithelium

Each of those neurons has one type of “olfactory receptor,” which does the scent detection itself. One receptor type, but many copies of it.

A scent enters your nose, dissolves into the mucus in there (appetizing!), and thus reaches olfactory receptors. When a receptor matches the scent, the two molecules will bond. Ions flow into the neuron, and a signal is produced.

Olfactory receptors are incredibly diverse. 900+ genes (the largest gene family in the body), and each receptor is broadly tuned so it can detect more than one scent. Like the visual receptors in the eye, which I discussed on a NeuroThursday past.

In the eye, your “red” cones respond strongest to red light, but respond medium-strongly to wavelengths close for red. Same idea in the nose: each receptor can respond medium-well to scents with similar molecular shapes.

This is why scents *mean* things. If two molecules are related (with common features), they’ll bond to the same receptors (though not at equal strength). Same receptors = similar info to your brain = similar smell!

As with the eyes, broad tuning – a neuron has one target, but responds weakly to near-misses– is the way to perceive structure in the world.

This is super-fundamental, preserved across evolution. Olfactory neurons have basically the same cellular and molecular properties across all animals.

So now that we understand the biology of smell, we’re ready to ask why they’re so emotionally powerful.

Most of those emotional associations are learned: with exposure, we’ve learned that swimming-pool-chlorine tastes like summer. This can, in turn, bring up a specific summer-pool memory.

(There are exceptions to this “learned” thing – particularly in the realm of disgust, which starts as a hardwired thing. But even there, learning & association add layers.)

But smell memories can be more emotionally vivid than others. Is there something special about smell and emotion?

We have ideas, but no solid answers. “Emotional memory strength” isn’t exactly something modern science can study effectively. But the anatomy does point toward a possible explanation.

Those little olfactory neurons are rooted in your Olfactory Bulb, which does some initial processing of olfactory information, and receives guidance from top-down stuff like attention.

Olfactory Bulb image

The olfactory bulb is part of your brain, and it connects straight to the limbic system: a network of areas in the brain involved in emotion and the formation of memories.

Some well-known parts of the limbic system could deserve their own NeuroThursday, since there are a lot of misunderstandings about them. If you know what the “hippocampus” is, I’d say 30% odds you know something false.

But the point here is that the olfactory bulb has direct access to parts of the brain involved in emotion and memory. One possible #NeuroThursday takeaway is that, yes, there’s an anatomical basis for smell memories to be uniquely evocative.

However, I’d like to finish by pivoting from fact to opinion. (Can your olfactory neurons detect the rank smell of punditry?)

Smell can be highly emotional. But so can vision and hearing. The sight of a loved one, the sound of a familiar song. Even a gentle touch, at the right time, can produce a mighty emotional response.

I’m not 100% convinced that there’s anything uniquely emotional about smell, compared to our other senses. Maybe its emotional-intensity only stands out because we don’t think about smell as often: we needed to be reminded of its intensity.

Powerful memories and delicious scents may make a challenging research project, but they’re a deep (and hopefully delicious) part of our lives, whether or not we pay attention to them.

Did you enjoy the scent of this #NeuroThursday on taste, smell, and emotion? Share it around, or check out some of my fiction! And if you haven’t yet read Tina’s story above, now’s the time!


Threadreader version:

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1141845165142958080.html

Fourth Street Fantasy schedule 2019

Fourth Street fantasy is this coming weekend, with a fantastic lineup of programming!

In a wonderful little convention packed with smart people & deep ideas, I’ll be on one panel. Since it’s a one-track con, you won’t miss it if you’re attending, but I still want to highlight it here for delight & for the record:

7:00 PM – When Gods Step In

Robyn Bennis, Pamela Dean, Benjamin C. Kinney, Scott Lynch (M), Jenn Lyons

In fantasy, it’s no surprise to see gods taking an active hand in the story—except sometimes, that fundamentally changes all the rules. With stories that can feature beings of unprecedented power, how do we manage stakes and agency? How can gods act as divine intervention without becoming narratively unsatisfying deus ex machina, how can characters do anything that matters if free will is negotiable or fate isn’t, and how do you depict their faith or understandings of magic in a nuanced way when gods are provably real? When we reference gods in our determinations of how the rules of fantasy worlds work, that affects what it means to challenge of any understanding of what has “always” been “true,” and it shades how we read stories about exercising freedom under systems we can’t comprehend or influence. This panel will discuss how we navigate the awesome potential for power and problems of gods literally and figuratively stepping into our stories.

Readercon schedule 2019

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be appearing at Readercon in Quincy MA on July 11-14! Here’s where you can find me:

Friday 6:00 PM
Concierge Lounge – Kaffeeklatsch
If you want to pick my brain about neuroscience stuff, here’s your chance to trap me with caffeine!

xFriday 8:00 PM
Sylvanus Thayer – Reading
Who needs dinner? Come hear me read something awesome! I’m thinking “A Breath of Salt,” the Writers of the Future finalist story I withdrew from the contest. An epic fantasy with religious sorcery pirates, faith journeys in a world of real-but-transcendent pantheistic gods, and a CW for suicidal ideation.

Saturday 7:00 PM
Salon B – The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of Bicameral Models
Ruthanna Emrys, Benjamin C. Kinney, John P. Murphy (mod), John O’Neil
Computer science and neuroscience may each be getting closer to the mysteries of cognition, but they do so from very different directions. How do they inform each other, and how do they get in each other’s way? Are their differences reconcilable? For that matter, is it even meaningful to think of them as being about the same thing? What do their cutting edges imply for our own deep dreams of fantastika?

Sunday 2:00 PM
Salon 4 – From Seed to Story: How to Escape the Slush Pile
Martin Cahill, Scott Edelman, James Patrick Kelly (mod), Benjamin C. Kinney, Kenneth Schneyer
As Ann Leckie explained in a 2013 blog post, even great writers will have stories rejected if they write 7,000 words around an underdeveloped idea. So what kind of research should go into a short story? How much plot and exposition are called for? What questions should the writer be asking and answering before they even start writing? Panelists will explore various methods by which a story seed can be nurtured into something publishable.

Story Sale: The Promise of Iron

I’m delighted to announce that my short story “The Promise of Iron” will be appearing in Kaleidotrope in 2021! This started as the first story I ever brought all the way from drafting to revision, and as a baby!writer, its early near-successes (including as finalist for the 2014 James White Award) gave me the confidence I needed to keep submitting.

In a world where steampunk technology has dragged the Napoleonic Wars into a forty-year quagmire, the battlefront has finally made its way to Budapest. With automata walking the streets, the Jewish orphan Eszter might finally get her chance to become an engineer – if she’s willing to lose the last scraps of home, family, and identity she still possesses.

Impending Doom

It may not be Thursday, but I found a good excuse to go all neuroscience on the experience described in the medical literature as “Sense of Impending Doom.”

Twitter:

Or on the web via Threadreader App!

Support options: Patreon & Curious Fictions

If you want to support the work I do writing SFF, editing Escape Pod, and bringing neuroscience knowledge to fandom, you now have two options: Patreon and Curious Fictions.

I’ve long resisted setting up this Patreon page because I’m not hurting for cash – but the more money I can make from writing, the more time I can spend on it. I’d absolutely love the time to bring #NeuroThursday back to life, and be able to share my neuroscience knowledge with you all again!

If you want a more needy cause to support, consider instead (or also) signing up for the Escape Artists patreon, which funds the best free SFF podcasts on the internet, and allows Escape Pod to fly.1

Dream Foundry Kickstarter

When I withdrew my finalist story from Writers of the Future a little more than a year ago, one of the agonies about (not) supporting WotF was the work they do to support, award, and draw attention to new SFF writers & artists. If only that was actually the motive of WotF’s organization.1

Out of those dark days, a new organization has arisen: The Dream Foundry. Their mission is to support and  promote SFF creators across their careers, starting with mentorship and a judged contest for new writers 2 The Dream Foundry has been created by and for SFF creators – there are no outside interests or motives, beyond improving this ecosystem we all live in, and helping welcome every new generation of writers into the SFF community!

Dream Foundry dragon

Today, the Dream Foundry kickstarter has gone live. At the time of posting, less than 1 day in, they’re over halfway to their goal. But that first goal is just the basics. With enough money, they can start piloting their contest right away. All their goals and costs are laid out on their page.

Check out the Kickstarter, earn some fun rewards – and most importantly, help make speculative fiction a more welcoming place for new creators.

Oh yeah, and there’s a critique by some familiar names at the $150 Aerial Patrol support level!

Escape Pod: The New Rejectomancy

Good news for all you writers out there: starting immediately (last update February 5, 2019), Escape Pod is changing their rejection letters to a newer, more transparent pattern.

Escape Pod rejection letters will now be explicit and transparent about exactly where your story got in our editorial pipeline. For the last two years, the letters contained that information, but to interpret it you needed to read my website. No longer! That means you’re free to stop reading this post right now, its information is no longer necessary. But if you crave a deeper knowledge of rejectomantic arts, feel free to continue onward.

If the rejection letter provides no details about who enjoyed your story, that means your story was rejected after initial Associate Editor review. If your story passed any of the following milestones, the rejection letter will tell you whether:

  1. An Associate Editor passed your story up to the Assistant Editor.
  2. The Assistant Editor (me) held it for a second read.
  3. The Assistant Editor passed it to Co-Editors for the final round of consideration.

Associate Editors read each story anonymized1, but the Assistant Editor and Co-Editors can see the author’s name and cover letter.2 This process gives each story an initial read where it must stand on its text alone, while still allowing the cover letter to play a role, especially if the author has experiences relevant to the story.

The new letters also provide approximate statistics about the stages of our pipeline (“about X% of stories reach this level”). We hope this context will be useful, especially for new authors.

Rejection “level” is not an indication of story quality. It only tells you what it says on the proverbial tin: whom in our staff thought it might be a good fit for Escape Pod.

The only exceptions to this formula are three rare cases, all of them self-explanatory. “Violated guidelines” (generally for stories that are too long or too short), “Revise & Resubmit,” and of course “Acceptance.”

Unlike in the past, reprints and originals now receive the same rejection letters.

PERSONAL NOTES

When possible, we try to include personal comments in rejection letters, below the form text. Most personal notes are written by me based on Associate Editor input. In addition, sometimes the Associates write up the a note for me to paste in, and of course the Co-Editors write their own for the final round. The presence (or absence) of a personal note does not reflect how well we thought a story would fit at Escape Pod. Generally, five factors influence this choice:

  1. Who on our staff read your story? (Are they someone more or less inclined to write personals?)
  2. Did we think a comment would help this story or your future stories?
  3. Was our reaction something we could meaningfully condense down to a sentence or two?
  4. Was there something in your cover letter that affected our desire to provide feedback?
  5. How hurried was I while sending out rejection letters?
  6. Was the story a reprint? (Reprints almost never get personal notes, because the story has already achieved its final form.)

As you can see, many of these factors have nothing to do with your story. We offer feedback as often as manageable,3 but we’re not your critique group.

WHAT MAKES A STORY FIT (OR NOT)

If you receive a rejection letter of any kind, we didn’t think your story was a good fit for Escape Pod. This can happen for any combination of the following reasons:

  1. The story didn’t suit our personal tastes.
  2. We found problems with the story.
  3. We’ve seen too many stories like this.
  4. The prose would require too much editing.
  5. The story felt more like fantasy or horror than science fiction.
  6. The style wasn’t a good fit for audio.

This is fiction, not math: subjective taste is our only true yardstick. We encourage everyone to keep trying no matter what flavor of rejection they receive! Many of our authors received several rejections of various types before we bought one of their stories, and many of our staff still receive rejections from other Escape Artists podcasts.

NOTES AND EXCEPTIONS

We try to go through the main queue from oldest to newest, but there’s a lot of jitter. For example, if one of us downloads 10 stories to their Kindle, the next reader might come along ten minutes later and respond to the 11th story.

The workflow can vary if I or one of the Co-Editors plucks a story from the queue. This skips a story over one or more of the early tiers, but is not usually faster than the usual pipeline, nor does it necessarily affect the ultimate odds of acceptance. You may never notice from the outside.

Special submission calls aren’t under my management. Artemis Rising generally follows a similar workflow, but has only two editorial levels, and tries to send more personal responses.

We don’t recommend paying attention to your story status in Submittable. It can change from “New” to “In-Progress” for reasons related to your story’s place in the pipeline (e.g. an Associate Editor read your story), or completely unrelated reasons (e.g. a new person joined the Escape Pod team). From the outside there’s no way to tell the causes apart. Relax, be patient, we’ll respond as soon as we have information to share.

This is an explanation, not a contract. This process was different in the past, and will surely change again someday.

Time Cookie Wars audio reprint at Toasted Cake

Need snack on a long cold weekend? Now’s your chance to hear the Time Cookie Wars podcasted at last! Meet all your black comedy science fiction needs (and cookie hungers) via Tina Connolly’s wonderful reading in episode 208 of the Toasted Cake podcast.

Time Cookie Wars is a story about… what it says on the tin. Wars, across time, for cookies. Though I suppose you could read my original story notes for more info on what brought us to levy such judgment on our past selves.

P.S. I actually like peanut butter cookies. But they’re nothing compared to Milanos.

The Year of Declines: Parsecs and WOTF

Escape Pod won the 2018 Parsec Award for “Best Speculative Fiction Magazine or Anthology Podcast.”

But don’t congratulate us yet. Because we – and our siblings over at PodCastle, who won “Best Speculative Fiction Story: Small Cast (Short Form)” – are declining our award.

In short, the Parsecs gave an award to a notorious harasser and abuser.1 When they discovered this, their reaction was not to deny a platform and publicity to someone with years of documented abuse, but to double down on the supposed virtues of their anonymized process.

Escape Artists co-owners Alasdair Stewart and Marguerite Kenner described our collective decision-making process here. PodCastle has released their own statement here. Alasdair earlier released a personal statement here. Escape Pod is still pondering a statement of our own, but given how good those statements are, it’s not clear how much brainspace we want to waste on this.

But I wanted to add a personal element.

This marks the second time this year I’ve been involved in withdrawing from a major award. When I withdrew from Writers of the Future, I ended my announcement with the sentence, “For myself, no award is worth supporting an organization that has hurt and misused so many friends, fellow authors, illustrators, and human beings.”

There are a lot of ways to hurt and misuse. The Parsecs aren’t directly, obviously harmful in the way Writers of the Future is. But if we’ve (all, collectively) learned anything from the internet over the last few years, it’s that unmoderated spaces become spaces dominated by harassers and abusers. Bad actors drive everyone else away. If an organization refrains from passing judgment, then only the worst participants will have the will and power to make judgments.

I understand the appeal and principles of above-the-fray neutrality. In practice, any organization must choose between those who would act abusively, and their victims. If you won’t banish anyone, the harmful people will do the banishing.

As Jennifer Albert said in the PodCastle statement, “Being non-partisan is not an excuse to shirk the responsibility to stand for justice.” As Alasdair said in his personal statement, “[Judging solely on merit] is impossible, and, bluntly, naïve.” And as Marguerite Kenner said in the Escape Artists statement, “No situation involving a group of people is apolitical; to claim to act in such a way… is willful ignorance.”

Identifying the abusers isn’t always easy. But sometimes an abuser has a multi-year, media-documented history of threatening behavior, and the basic standard of care for your community is clear. Or certainly should be.

For myself, no award is worth supporting an organization that would allow someone to hurt and misuse so many friends, fellow authors, podcasters, and human beings.