Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Power of Scent

smell the rosesI once had a boyfriend who claimed that his former love had liked the smell of his sweaty t-shirt... I seriously doubted that. 

Nonetheless, there is a lot of evidence that indicates that our sense of smell is far from being a weak and unimportant sense-- that our odour-detecting ability is surprisingly sharp and adds to our social interactions in ways that we often do not consciously realize. 

The sense of smell is often considered a far-off contender in a competition of sensory importance: we ask ourselves, for example, "What would I do if I went blind?" or "How could I manage if I couldn't hear anything?"  Not many of us think, "I wonder what it's like not to be able to smell anything?"  (Although there were a few times in my life when I thought that such an experience would be okay when driving downwind of a hog operation or a pulp mill.)

The fact is, our sense of smell is more influential to our species than we think it is.  Smell facilitates a number of human casual and intimate social interactions.   

Did you know that we use smell to assess whether we find someone likable or not? If you are a Boomer you will likely really identify with this-- remember our fears of "halitosis" and "B.O" (well, except for that one boyfriend of mine!). How about the thinly disguised racism behind statements like, "Oh, he eats all that stinky food".

We sort out friends and strangers by their scents. You have likely heard of people who have slept with a piece of clothing that belonged to their former spouse? Or children who are soothed to sleep by snuggling an old sweater of Mommy's? It makes sense, then, that the olfactory organ (right up high on our nose, connected to our brain) can facilitate reproduction and prevent risky encounters.

More to come on this fascinating topic....

Inspired and adapted from the article "The Hidden Power of Scent" by Josie Glausiusz in the August/September 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind.

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