The Story of Ferdinand is a much acclaimed classic children book written by American author Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. Since its publication in 1936 the story has generated a wide range of readings. This essay looks at Ferdinand as a possible icon of science communication. It shows how the story corresponds with the current state of research. The essay is a new chapter of the ongoing series of Scent Culture Comment & Review.
Earlier this year As pointed out in the previous post smelling makes Ferdinand stand out of the crowd. Ferdinand enjoys the calming pleasures of the sense of smell. Smelling even mundane flowers makes Ferdinand happy. Ferdinand is happy – admittedly, a happy bull. But anyhow. Smelling makes happy!
Ferdinand is an illustration of current research
This fragrant message of the story is perfectly in line with current research on smell and its impact on the quality of life: Accordingly, the loss of the sense of smell leads to disturbances in important areas, mainly in food enjoyment, detecting harmful food and smoke, and to some extent in social situations and working life. Some people suffering from an olfactory disorder even suffer from considerable problems and expresses a noticeable reduction in general quality of life. What concludes from this range of observations?
Practicing your sense of smell makes you happy!
By the same token, it is also striking to see how individual and subjective the experience of scent can be. Remember that all bulls actually inhale the scent of the daisies and buttercups. Yet, it is only Ferdinand who actively responds to the scent. Olfactory pleasure is not just out there. It is actually in the nose of the beholder: In this respect the story corresponds with the current state of knowledge as well:
Accordingly, there is no simple stimulus-percept mechanism for olfaction. Instead, different individuals perceive the same molecule with different sets of functional odorant receptors. Even the same molecule is therefore often perceived differently by different individuals. This complication is not unique to olfaction. However, in olfaction, the variability between different individuals is unusually large as we can learn from current research. Thus, there is also a word of warning for all naive believers in the magic of scent as a manipulative device that works irrespective of the specific set of functional odorant receptors. If you want to explore this matter further, you might enjoy find this open access paper by Andreas Keller & Leslie Vosshall including the further references the authors provide.
This point about the subjectivity of human olfactory perception is even more valid as soon as we consider how prior experience, cultural practices, motivational state, and non-olfactory information affect olfactory perception.
To sum up:
The Story of Ferdinand tells the story about smelling and its effects on moods and emotions. Above all, it is a story about the happiness of olfactory pleasures. In other words a scent enthusiast knows why Ferdinand smells the flowers. Admittedly, there is more we can learn about the sense of smell from this story. But let’s stop at this point.
Ferdinand is the protagonist for a short series of posts. Subscribing to our updates you will not miss the next chapter!
Image source: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/how-the-story-of-ferdinand-became-fodder-for-the-culture-wars-of-its-era