Ann-Sophie Barwich, PhD (Exon)
I am a neurophilosopher, working on the sense of smell.
How does the brain makes sense of scents?
What can experimental challenges in contemporary olfactory research tell us about the character of ongoing scientific investigation?
My background is in philosophy and history of science and the senses, involving laboratory ethnography. I work on topics in neuroscience and cognition, biology and chemistry. My specialization concerns contemporary and past developments in olfactory research (1600 onwards, but with main focus on the developments from 1991 to the present).
Currently, I am on a 3-year postdoctoral project as a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University.
A side interest of mine is (the history of) magic. I am fascinated by the implications of understanding the effects of conjuring tricks on our minds.
From the Air to the Brain:
The Sense of Smell as a Model System for Neuroscience & the Senses
How do we smell? The answer to this question promises new insight into neuroscience. The discovery of the olfactory receptors by Buck and Axel in 1991 catapulted olfaction into core neurobiological research. With the identification of the receptors as G-protein coupled receptors olfactory research became affiliated with a wide range of cell signaling studies. While a lot of fundamental questions about olfactory processing are still open to dispute, the consensus is that the olfactory pathway will facilitate a greater neurobiological understanding of signal processing. One of the open questions that attracted greater attention over the past ten years is the longstanding problem of how the brain ‘maps’ smells.
My postdoc project investigates the role of scientific expertise in current laboratory-based neuroscience. By tracing the emergence, success, and decline of standard lab routines in research on the sense of smell, I analyze how cognitive and behavioral patterns influence scientific decision-making.
Its current dynamics and susceptibility to the revision of its core premises makes olfactory research an excellent example to study the ambiguity of determining what a reliable research strategy is. One of the key reasons for the historical marginalization of olfaction was the experimental difficulty of conducting research into olfaction: How do you measure odors? Another reason is that smell was long considered a declining and "lower sense" that lacks cognitive significance. (To be sure, nothing could be further from the truth!) The contemporary relevance of research in olfaction is twofold: It lies in is its capability for methodological innovations and its potential to serve a new model sense for understanding the structure and content of perception.
Video: Paulsen's ammonia experiments (19th century).
Image from Zwaardemaker (1895): Die Physiologie des Geruchs
Paulsen (1882) tested whether specific parts or the entire nasal cavity are involved in odor perception. Using a human head (corpse), Paulsen plastered its nasal cavity with litmus paper and imitated the airflow through an artificial breathing device. Injecting the air with ammonia, he traced the airflow pattern and visualized its pathway.
Animation by Lan Li
Ann-Sophie Barwich (Ph.D., Exeter, 2013; MA and BA, Humboldt-University, 2009) is an empirical philosopher and historian of science and the senses. Her work specializes in the advances of olfactory research and neuroscience. Barwich is currently a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Exeter (The Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences) under the supervision of John Dupré, before taking up a postdoctoral fellowship at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research. Her thesis examined the classification and modeling strategies through which scientists have linked odors to a material basis (botanical, chemical, molecular-biological, neurophysiological), and her previous postdoctoral project concerned the role of methodology in measurement and wet-lab discovery. Barwich's current project examines the conceptual foundations of neuroscience by looking at the role of research routines in scientific training and practice. Her publications include eight peer-reviewed articles, five book chapters, and two science communication pieces. These publications deal with various topics in smell and scientific practice, such as olfactory (neuro)aesthetics (2017, New Ideas in Psychology), the experimental history of transmembrane proteins (accepted 2017, Biology & Philosophy), limits to stimulus classification in fragrance chemistry (2016, Perspectives on Science), and methodological challenges to sensory measurement (2015, Biological Theory).
Barwich’s cross-disciplinary research is based on her work in the laboratory of the neuroscientist Stuart Firestein at Columbia University. In addition, she has visited a number of other olfactory laboratories and conducted interviews with experts in the field. She has presented her research on philosophical perspectives on smell at scientific departments and conferences in the USA and Europe. Also, Barwich has recently organized a multi-disciplinary meeting and symposium on the human sense of smell, involving practitioners from olfactory neuroscience, psychology, chemistry, philosophy, and perfumery.