The Science of Scent

issue six : the shape of things to come

We sniff out the neurological reactions we have to scent

I miss your fragrance, sometimes I miss it this much that I can clearly smell you in the air.
— Qaisar Iqbal Janjua

Fragrance and perfume are big words in the world of untainted beauty. This article, however, is not about the health implications of synthetic scents but rather the science behind scent and our ability to smell. It is about how our bodies are ingeniously designed to decode an unknown number of odours, how we use smell to detect danger and the physiological responses smell has on our memory, emotions and communication.

A little perspective

If you consider that our eyes can decode 10 million colours using only three genes (red, blue and green), can you even begin to imagine how much information our noses can decode with 400 different genes? The answer is an infinite amount. The human body, like the rest of nature, has been so soundly designed, that we have the ability to detect and decipher smells that don't even exist yet, according to Neuroscientist Leslie Vosshall, whose research focuses on olfaction's role in the brain and how it impacts human behaviour.

 Photo by  Billy Cox  on  Unsplash

Photo by Billy Cox on Unsplash

By Design

Design will be a common thread running through this issue of The Shape of Things To Come. More precisely, the importance of good design and how by, better packaging design, there is an ability to limit our impact our on the future. The same can be said for the clever evolutionary design of our noses (and for impact I will use our bodies - and noses - as an example of good 'packaging' design). Very simplistically, how the sense of smell has been designed to do two things: 

1: To detect danger

We can literally smell danger before we see it or feel it. Think about how we can smell smoke before we even see the flames or smell decaying food before we eat it and potentially get very sick from it.

2: To detect pleasure

We have the ability to identify loved ones through smell alone. Men can detect when women who are ovulating and identify them as more "attractive" during these periods which is essential for procreation (there was a study done in New Mexico where researchers found strippers earned higher tips when they were ovulating, versus those that were on the pill). Our smell is linked to how we experience flavour in food; Smell + Taste = flavour.

But more on this later...

the Sci-Fi Sense

Interestingly, our olfactory receptors are the only part of the brain that sits outside of our skulls. When we breathe in chemicals (remember, EVERYTHING is a chemical, so those touting products are 'chemical free' are peddling fake news) our olfactory nerves bind these molecules with proteins in different ways and these 'smells' get stored in our internal scent library. Smell is possibly the most primal of all our senses and is the only sense linked to memory, communication and emotion. This is because our olfactory tract is a direct pathway to the limbic system, the part of your brain that deals with emotions. Perhaps that is why our reactions to smells are never neutral. Smells are like Marmite (or coriander)... we either like them or we don't!

I don't know about you, but I am acutely aware of my sense of smell and the memories and emotions they conjure up in me. I can be walking down the street and smell someone wearing the same fragrance as my first love (which happens to be Calvin Klein's Obsession for Men), and I can quite literally be transported back to a very corporeal moment in time as if straight out of a science fiction film. 

Marketers have been using the psychology of smell and its links to mood and memory association to 'encourage' us into stores to spend our hard earned cash. These scents are so subtle, we don't even realise they are drawing us in. Synthetically produced aromas of chocolate chip cookies,  clean linen,  freshly cut grass and (fake) fruit - to name but a few -  are used to reel us in.

Why are we only concerned with our data being misused on the internet? What about how unique scientific coding being exploited in a physical reality too?

On the note of synthetic fragrance, since having switched to untainted alternatives of pretty much everything in my life, I have become so a-tuned to deciphering fragrances made in a lab versus those made by nature and have developed sensitivities and physical reactions to synthetically produced fragrances. Aren't our bodies simply extraordinary?

 

Knowing the nose

In the greater scheme of things, and in comparison to other senses and body parts, we know very little about how the nose works. While the instinctual reactions (using perfume to mask body odor for instance) and the emotional links to the power of smell (memories and emotions induced when smelling something beautiful like a rose) have been utilised and written about for centuries,  in-depth research into the subject only really began  in 1991 when Richard Axel and Linda Buck published a groundbreaking paper that shed light on olfactory receptors and how the brain interprets smell. They won a Nobel Prize for their work in 2004.

 

Nose Blindness

Imagine for a moment that you couldn't smell anymore. While initially, this may seem like a superficial loss, consider the fact that you would not be able to taste your favourite flavours when you ate. That aromatic Thai curry would just be a milky broth with slimy noodles. The alluring smell of coffee brewing, freshly baked bread rising in the oven, sizzling bacon* on the stove, and garlic cooking... all of these smells, which are all linked to pleasure, will be no longer exist in your equation of life.  

Even more concerning, however, is the very real danger of not being able to smell warning signs like natural gases (which, by the way, has no smell and those clever scientists have added a synthetic molecule that smells like rotting egg so we can detect it) escaping or smoke from a fire. Trained 'Nose' (yes, that is a real profession), Michelle Krell Kid's TedTalk really hit home when she addressed that this is a reality for millions of people around the world. Nose blindness, or Anosmia, is a very real thing. Unlike sight blindness or deafness, you cannot tell by simply looking or communicating with someone that they have a sensory disability. We are not immune to losing this vital yet underrated sense. Anything from a bad cold, respiratory tract infection or head injury can lead to a loss of smell. Not to mention snorting 'stuff' up your nostrils!

So please, don't take this precious sense for granted.

*While I do not eat bacon (anymore), there is no denying that it smells delicious.