Rethinking the Senses (Public Engagement Case Study – Dr Merle Fairhurst)

To mark the launch of our call for applications for the first SAS/Senate House Library ‘Public Engagement Innovators Scheme’, we asked some staff from across the School about their experiences of public engagement and how it has influenced their research and professional practice. In this second post Dr Merle Fairhurst, research fellow in the Institute of Philosophy, answers our questions about her experiences engaging the public with research on the AHRC Rethinking the Senses project. Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and the research that you do/your role in SAS? As a research fellow on the AHRC Rethinking the Senses project at the Centre for the Study of the Senses (Institute of Philosophy), my central function is to use psychological and neuroimaging techniques to explore how we perceive the world through our various senses. I am particularly interested in the ways different streams of sensory information – say the sight and sound associated with someone speaking to you – are combined to create a unified experience. My work is complemented by dialogue and interaction with philosophers as we work together to investigate the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of multi-sensory perception. What public engagement activities have you been involved with in the School? The AHRC grant offers the chance and indeed promotes the sharing of our work with the general public and as such, we are always grateful for an opportunity to tell people about how our senses work together as well as highlight the philosophical relevance of empirical research. Our recent events have included talks in various venues, with two very exciting sessions as part of...

What does your sense of smell mean to you?

The best public engagement is underpinned by world-class research. In March, the Institute of Philosophy’s Centre for the Study of the Senses held a launch event for the national charity Fifth Sense that brought together leading researchers, clinicians, campaigners and loss-of-smell sufferers to raise awareness of the effect on people’s quality of life if they lose their sense of smell. What we know as ‘taste’ is really taste, touch and smell; you don’t have strawberry receptors on your tongue, for example – that’s all smell. – Professor Barry Smith, Institute of Philosophy The Centre for the Study of the Senses often calls on its wide range of international partners to create events that bring the latest findings to the national subject communities and the wider public. Its launch event for Fifth Sense included an international workshop, open to all interested parties, that featured leading researchers on olfaction (the sense of smell) from philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. Jay Gottfried (Chicago) discussed the close connection of sense of smell to memory and emotion; Juyan Lim (Oregon) explained why odours reaching our nose from the mouth are experienced as tastes. Ilona Croy, from Europe’s leading centre for the study of olfaction in Dresden, and Spanish philosopher, Marta Tafalla, spoke about the many roles smell plays in everyday life. Marta, who was born without a sense of smell, and unable to taste most flavours, spoke movingly about her search to find out what she was missing. Philosophers and psychologists from the universities of Glasgow, Oxford, Roehampton and Warwick were invited to comment on these talks. The following day, the team from the Centre joined together with clinicians, medical researchers, campaigners and anosmia (loss of smell) sufferers from Fifth Sense to explore life without this sense. Patients spoke of the emotional changes the loss had caused, while others spoke of ways...