The Smell Report
By Kate Fox
- The human sense of smell
Although the human sense of smell is feeble compared to that of many animals, it is still very acute. We can recognise thousands of different smells, and we are able to detect odours even in infinitesimal quantities.
The perception of smell consists not only of the sensation of the odours themselves but of the experiences and emotions associated with these sensations. Smells can evoke strong emotional reactions. In surveys on reactions to odours, responses show that many of our olfactory likes and dislikes are based purely on emotional associations.
In the early 1990s, perfume makers began to introduce vanilla as a significant note in their fragrances. Now, vanilla is a dominant ingredient in a large number of perfumes — and the Body Shop have recently launched a pure vanilla fragrance.
On standard tests of smelling ability — including odour detection, discrimination and identification — women consistently score significantly higher than men. One researcher has claimed that the superior olfactory ability of females is evident even in newborn babies.
- Sexual attraction
The attractive powers of pheromones (scented sex hormones) have often been exaggerated — not least by advertisers trying to sell pheromone-based scents and sprays which they claim will make men irresistible to women.
Experiments have shown that exposure to pleasant fragrances significantly enhances performance on work-related tasks. In particular, ‘arousing’ fragrances such as peppermint, which increase alertness, have been found to improve performance.
- High-tech noses
The world of advanced technology, after years of preoccupation with sight and sound, has recently woken up to the importance of smell. The Institute of Olfactory Research at Warwick University developed the first prototype ‘electronic nose’ in the mid-80s, and high-tech companies are now selling commercial versions of the ‘Warwick Nose’.
- High-tech smells
The development of more sophisticated technology for synthesising or ‘capturing’ previously elusive smells appears to be keeping pace with the advances in high-tech noses to detect the ones we already have.
The process by which a flower’s scent is extracted and preserved using alcohol distillation is believed to have been discovered by Avicenna, the 11th century Arabian alchemist and physician, who stumbled on it while ‘trying to isolate for Islam the soul of its holy rose’. Before this, perfumes consisted only of thick resins and gums and gooey unguents.
Smell is not just a biological and psychological experience, it is also a social and cultural phenomenon.