Thursday, March 26, 2009

Another Fantasy Supersmeller: Tarzan of the Apes


The idea of supersmellers is a popular one. Novelists are particularly taken with characters who have an extraordinary ability to detect and identify odors. Patrick Süskind’s nasty little novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a prime example. The story’s creepy anti-hero Grenouille can pick up scents at great distance and describe their components with uncanny precision. This idiot-savant of perfumery fetishizes the smell of virgin women; when he seeks to extract their bodily essences he becomes a serial killer.

Other literary supersmellers, such as Saleem Sinai in Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, are less macabre. Some, like the characters in Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume, are downright comic. 

Despite their frequent appearance in literature, I don’t know of a single documented case of a real-life smell genius. Sure, some people have very sensitive noses. Others have a flair for creating pleasing combinations of scent. But professional perfumers have ordinary noses. When they encounter a new perfume they smell it from the top down. They recognize a general type—a chypre for example—look for a distinguishing twist and only then search for specific notes that make it unique. In other words, a perfumer smells the forest, not the trees. In contrast, fictional characters like Grenouille turn psychological reality upside down: they recognize individual flowers before noticing the bouquet. Their abilities aren’t an exaggeration of normal smelling—they’re a contradiction of it.

When I gave a talk at the Barnes & Noble in Greenwich Village a while back, an older gentleman had me sign his copy of What the Nose Knows. He wore oversized glasses, was poorly shaved, and his shirt pocket was stuffed with pens, scraps of note paper, bus schedules, and betting slips from Aqueduct. A classic Village oddball. As I handed back his book, he asked me if I was familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was. Did I know that Tarzan of the Apes had an extraordinary sense of smell? I did not. Despite appearances, something told me this geezer knew what he was talking about.

Well, I finally got around to tracking down his lead and guess what? The old dude was right. Here’s the passage, from Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, the fifth book of the Tarzan series, first published in 1918:
Though the spoor was two days old, and practically obliterated in many places, Tarzan followed it with comparative ease. A white man could not have followed it twenty paces twelve hours after it had been made, a black man would have lost it within the first mile; but Tarzan of the Apes had been forced in childhood to develop senses that an ordinary mortal scare ever uses.

We may note the garlic and whiskey on the breath of a fellow strap hanger, or the cheap perfume emanating from the person of the wondrous lady sitting in front of us, and deplore the fact of our sensitive noses; but, as a matter of fact, we cannot smell at all, our olfactory organs are practically atrophied, by comparison with the development of the sense among the beasts of the wild.
Like many of his generation, Burroughs the armchair Darwinian casually incorporated spurious ideas of racial gradation into his evolutionizing. He also subscribed to the popular view that the human sense of smell has devolved through disuse—a misconception he shared with Sigmund Freud and the pioneer sexologist Havelock Ellis.

Freud thought that only children and neurotics paid attention to smell and that healthy adults grew out of it. Ellis believed that smell had long ago given way to vision. For Edgar Rice Burroughs, however, biology was not destiny. Raised as an ape, even Tarzan’s feeble human nose became capable of great things.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

OMG! Robert Pattinson has like you know BO & stuff


Female Twilight fans will be devastated if this is true. 

Evil is a choice.

UPDATE March 26, 2009
PR flacks issue denials, but Chicago Sun-Times entertainment columnist Bill Zwecker throws more fuel on the fire.

Sorry girls . . .

UPDATE

It gets worse! Mr. Heart Throb says “I don’t really see the point in washing your hair.” Video here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Annals of Anosmia 4: What’s the Prognosis?


Smell loss is most frequently caused by upper respiratory tract infection or head trauma. Most studies find that the return of smell function is more likely in the former case than in the latter. In medical jargon the conventional wisdom is that etiology (cause) determines prognosis (outcome).

However, a study published last year in the Annals of Neurology came to the surprising conclusion that etiology does not predict outcome. Richard Doty and his colleagues reviewed 542 patients examined at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Smell & Taste Center. The patients received a comprehensive test battery on their first visit, including a 40-item smell identification test. At intervals ranging from three months to twenty-four years they were given a brief 12-item version of the same test. The researchers measured clinical outcome based on the difference in performance between the original test and the follow-up.


What determines who recovers and who doesn’t? Statistical analysis turned up several factors. One was the initial degree of dysfunction: the likelihood of recovery was better when the initial smell loss was mild, and worse when it was severe. Another factor was age: the older the patient was when the smell loss occurred, the less likely he was to recover. In particular, the odds of improvement drop substantially after the age of seventy-four.

Surprisingly, the cause of the smell loss did not predict whether patients recovered from it. Doty’s team concludes that

head trauma patients with mild or severe initial smell loss have the same likelihood for functional recovery as patients with mild or severe smell loss due to other causes.

In other words, it’s the extent of the initial smell loss that matters, not what caused it.

On the bright side, the study found that
some improvement occurs over time in one-third to one-half of patients with olfactory dysfunction.
Improvement, however, doesn’t mean the patient regains full function. Far from it: even in patients whose initial loss was mild, only 18% regained absolutely normal smell function, and 23% regained function that was normal for age.

This study is not the last word on the topic—different patient populations, different smell tests, and different patient enrollment protocols might alter the exact nature of the results. Still, the study does put a big dent in the conventional wisdom about smell loss and recovery.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Aggravated Farting in Florida


What is it with kids in Florida? Last fall a 12-year-old boy in Stuart was arrested for disruptive farting in the classroom. Yesterday a 15-year-old in Lakeland was given a three-day suspension from riding the school bus after the driver accused him of passing gas to make the other kids laugh.

As in the earlier case, the accused attends what Floridians describe as a “last-chance school.” He was kicked out of middle school for fighting.

While The Smoking Gun delicately protected the 12-year-old’s privacy, the Lakeland Ledger has no qualms about identifying yesterday’s culprit as Jonathan Locke Jr.—they even ran his picture on Page 1.

Ledger reporter John Chambliss provides this classic quote:
“It wasn’t even me,” Locke said. “It was a kid who
sits in front of me.”
That’s what they all say. On the other hand, Junior could be innocent. The Polk County School District is relying entirely on the testimony of the bus driver. And it’s a well-established principle of common law that “he who smelt it, dealt it.”

For sheer bravado in the face of a repressive school administration, we here at First Nerve are proud to nominate Jonathan Locke Jr. for this year’s Edgar Marsalla Award.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Blowin’ in the Wind: Bob Dylan’s Portable Toilet


Some people were mad when Dylan went electric. Now they’re mad that he won’t go with indoor plumbing. According to the Los Angeles Times, the rock legend’s neighbors are up in arms about the stench drifting from a portable toilet he installed for the guys who guard his estate on Pt. Dume in Malibu.

Ah, I can hear the lyrics in my head as if it were yesterday . . .
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
Fed the stall a dime, in your prime, didn’t you?
Now people yell, what’s that smell, you’re going to hell
You thought they were all kidding you,
You built a port-a-pot,
All your private guards were hangin’ out
Now they can’t fart so loud,
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having zoning board tickets to appeal

How does it feel,
How does it feel,
To leave your abode,
And drop an outdoor load,
In a primitive mode
,
Like a total chode?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reality Czech: Frozen Smelly T-shirts


Back in graduate school a buddy of mine was doing a clinical psychology internship. One day he interviewed an elderly couple—the wife complained that her husband was getting forgetful and confused. “How so?” asked my friend. “Well,” said the wife, “last week I found a pair of his underwear in the ice cube tray in the refrigerator.”

It turns out there are reasons other than Alzheimer’s dementia for people to want to freeze underwear. Take body odor researchers, for example. A standard method for collecting BO is to have the odor donor wear a T-shirt for a couple of days. The BO-infused shirt is a handy scent source—test subjects can rate it for strength and pleasantness of smell, how masculine or feminine it smells, and so on. A popular alternative method is to have the donor wear cotton armpit pads to collect the perspiration.

In BO research one often wants to use multiple samples from the same donor and to have more than one set of judges rate the same odor. The logistics of this can get tricky—a couple of dozen panelists have to arrive at the same time as a group of odor donors delivers the dirty laundry. The easy way out is to store the smelly shirts for testing at a more convenient time. Researchers often put the shirts or pads in plastic bags and freeze them. The rationale is that freezing inhibits the bacteria that turn odorless fresh sweat into stinky BO.

Does this practice work?  Could it distort experimental results in some unexpected way? We had no direct answer to these questions until now. A pair of Czech BO scientists—Pavlina Lenochova and Jan Havlicek in Prague—along with S. Craig Roberts at Liverpool in the UK, examined how freezing—and repeated freezing-and-thawing—affect smell ratings of cotton armpit pads worn by male BO donors.

The upshot of the study, published in the journal Chemical Senses, is that the pleasantness, attractiveness, and masculinity of the samples were unaffected by two weeks or even six months of frozen storage. (The odor judges were 28 young women.) There were some variations in odor intensity but puzzlingly they were not related to storage time.

So the underwear-in-the-freezer gambit looks like an excellent solution to your BO storage needs. As a smell scientist, I can breathe easier knowing this.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Proust With an Anal Probe: The Smells of an Alien Abduction


Marcel Proust’s mistaken ideas about smell memory have soaked deeply into popular culture—so deep they are used to support the authenticity of alien abduction stories.

Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A true story (1987) is the narrative of his abduction by aliens in a UFO, followed by his realization under hypnosis that such visitations had been occurring throughout his life. While Strieber remained coy about whether his “visitors” were, in fact, extraterrestrials, most readers made the leap and drove the book to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list (in nonfiction!). Two years later it became a movie with Strieber played by Christopher Walken.

The details of Strieber’s story emerged only under hypnosis. According to the “recovered memories” crowd and the Freudians who aid and abet their nonsense, memories that have to be teased out through hypnosis are more accurate and trustworthy because they have been sealed away, untouched, behind a wall of “psychological repression.” Scientists, in contrast, see hypnosis as an invitation to psychological suggestion: the hypnotist can cue, and the subject can “recover,” whatever type of memory they hope to find.

In his novel In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust portrayed sensory memory as uniquely true because, unlike other forms of memory, it doesn’t change with time. To Proust, smell memory is immutable and inherently trustworthy. Smell-evoked memories are unimpeachable links to past events. Whitley Strieber takes the Proustian ball and runs with it: he repeatedly invokes smells as evidence that his abduction was real.

Strieber’s “abduction” took place on December 26, 1985. When the aliens proposed to insert a needle into his brain he objected, fearing brain damage.
One of them, I think it was the one I had identified earlier as the woman [alien], said, ‘What can we do to help you stop screaming?’ [. . .] My reply was unexpected. I heard myself say, ‘You could let me smell you.’ I was embarrassed; this is not a normal request, and it bothered me. But it made a great deal of sense, as I have afterward realized.

The one to my right replied, ‘Oh, OK, I can do that,’ in a similar voice, speaking very rapidly, and held his hand against my face, cradling my head with his other hand. The odor was distinct, and gave me exactly what I needed, an anchor in reality. It remained the most convincing aspect of the whole memory, because that odor was completely indistinguishable from a real one. It did not seem in any way a dream experience or a hallucination. I remembered it as an actual smell.
So what does an alien visitor smell like?
There was a slight scent of cardboard to it, as if the sleeve of the coverall that was partly pressed against my face were made of some substance like paper. The hand itself had a faint but distinctly organic sourness in its odor. It was not a human smell, but it was unmistakably the smell of something alive. There was a subtle overtone that seemed a little like cinnamon.

The next thing I knew, there was a bang and a flash, and I realized that they have performed the proposed operation on my head.

In the weeks that follow, Strieber is distressed about the incident and begins to doubt his own sanity.
Then, quite suddenly once afternoon, I recalled the smell. Their smell. It came back to me as clearly as if I had inhaled it not a moment before. More than anything except discovering that I was not alone with my experience, that totally real memory saved me from going stark raving mad.
Thank heaven for the solid anchor of Proustian smell memory!

Three months later, Strieber recalls his abduction under hypnosis:
I’m sitting on a bench in a little room. [Sniffs.] And it smells funny. Smells somethin’ like cheese in here. Smells kind of nasty, to tell you the truth. It’s not clean in here.
Cheese? What cheese? Here’s all he said about smell in his original description: “I seem to remember that the room was stuffy and the air quite dry . . .” So this olfactory detail—that the UFO’s reception room smelled like cheese—is an entirely new feature brought up under hypnosis. Strieber has just revised his “totally real” smell memory. Later, in the course of reflecting on the hypnosis session, he revises it even further:
The space I entered smelled like warm Cheddar cheese with a hint of sulfur. This sulfur odor has been reported by others.
So “stuffy” becomes “cheese” which becomes “warm Cheddar cheese with a hint of sulfur.” In other words, he subtly re-tunes his story to agree with other published accounts of alien abduction.

Meanwhile, Strieber introduces another Proustian revelation: the alien’s clothing “opened the door to the past. And it did this via my sense of smell.” How? Back in his apartment after the abduction, he senses the visitors again:
I felt their presence. It was palpable. Most upsetting, I could smell them. I could smell a distinct odor as if of smoldering cardboard, and it was familiar from the past. [...] Until now, though, I had not understood its significance.
The significance is that 12 or 13 years earlier he smelled smoldering cardboard one night and saw a small figure with a red light in its hand dashing through the house. He didn’t realize it at the time but this was his first brush with aliens.

Once again, Strieber edits his supposedly unshakable Proustian smell memory. The smell of the visitor’s coverall—originally a “slight scent of cardboard”—has now become “a distinct odor as if of smoldering cardboard.” (Smoldering? Were the alien’s clothes on fire?)

The effect is to buttress his newly revealed past of lifelong encounters with aliens. Or, as he puts it,
Odor is an excellent trigger of memory, and the odor of smoldering seemed to unlock a lot of doors.
Indeed. How convenient for Whitley Strieber that smell memory—a la Proust—is always true, even as he shades the recollections of it to suit his purpose.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I Smell Dead People: Blue Moon Edition


Whoa—here’s the second month in a row with a Friday the Thirteenth. Strikes me as rare. So let’s celebrate with another not-for-the-nervous roundup of ISDP.

On February 23rd, Pedro Lopez was renovating the house he just bought in Fontana, California—it had been unoccupied for about three years. While repairing the roof he smelled “a foul odor” coming from the chimney and checked it out with a flashlight. Inside the chimney he found a dead body.

A few days later, with the help of medical x-rays, police identified the remains as those of a 48-year-old homeless man who disappeared two years ago. The man had a history of arrests in the area and a petty theft conviction. Police theorize he was probably breaking into the vacant home through the chimney when he got stuck.

On February 27, a “bad smell” complaint led authorities in Alabama to human remains in a semi-remote area, specifically a site about a mile from Possum Trot Road in Deatsville. Yes, there is such an address. Google map it yourself—it’s about 30 miles north of Montgomery.

Alabama was also in the news a couple of days earlier when “complaints of a foul odor” led police in Gadsden to a back lot where they found a hearse containing a decomposed body. The body was that of a woman who died in late 2007; her family wanted her cremated but hadn’t signed the papers or paid the funeral home. So funeral home director Harold Watson Sr. put her remains in a hearse and left it in the back lot along with some other vehicles.

Watson’s been charged with abuse of a corpse.

The next Friday the Thirteenth doesn’t roll around until November. But we’ll doubtless be back before then with the next edition of ISDP—Spring’s just around the corner and temperatures will start rising.

FLASH UPDATE March 13, 2009

Just in from yesterday’s Pittsburg Post-Gazette: A few days after an elderly lady was taken away to the hospital, her neighbors in the Beltzhoover area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called the city to complain about the messy appearance of her house and a “foul odor” coming from it. Upon trying to enter the residence through a rear door, a code enforcement officer discovered a body in an advanced state of decomposition.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Basic Instinct: The Smell of Fear and Sex


Rice University psychologist Denise Chen has rapidly established herself as the leading expert on the communication of emotion through body odor. It might sound like a narrowly defined research topic, but it has enormous implications for understanding the social aspects of smell. Chen, along with her colleague Wen Zhou, has just published a pair of papers that show how BO (underarm odor) can signal fear and sexual arousal.

Both studies collected BO from male donors who wore 4 x 4 inch cloth pads in their armpits while watching 20-minute videos. In one study the videos were happy (slapstick comedy), scary (horror movies) or emotionally neutral (an educational documentary). Based on heart rate and high levels of self-reported happiness and fear during viewing, eight men were selected from a larger group to be the sweat donors. Their pads provided the “fear sweat” and “happy sweat” for the actual experiment.

In the other study, 20 hetero guys watched the educational documentary (snore . . .) and a porno video (hot!). Based largely on self-reported sexual arousal, three guys were selected as the “sexual sweat” donors. Needless to say, all donors followed meticulous protocols that avoided colognes and scented soaps as well as odiferous foods like garlic.

Who was smelling these samples of emotional sweat? In both experiments, it was young women.

In Chen’s fear study, published this month in Psychological Science, the women were shown faces and had to decide as quickly as possible whether the facial expression was happy or fearful. The faces were from a computer generated continuum in which an actor’s face was morphed from a happy expression to a fearful expression. The women judged the faces while smelling the various sweat samples. Happy sweat and the smell of clean pads had no effect on how women read the faces. Fear sweat, on the other hand, caused women to perceive otherwise neutral faces as fearful. It appears that the BO of fear has no effect on the perception of unambiguous facial expressions; however it can put a negative emotional spin on ambiguous expressions.

Chen’s study of sex sweat, published on New Year’s Eve in the Journal of Neuroscience, examined brain response to smells using fMRI scans. While in the scanner, women smelled four different odors: sex sweat, neutral sweat, phenylethyl alcohol (rose), and androstadienone (a chemical thought to be a human sex pheromone). Chen and Zhou found two brain areas that responded to sex sweat but not to the other three odors. One area was the right orbitofrontal cortex, a multisensory area known to be involved in smell judgments. The other was the right fusiform cortex, an area involved in the recognition of faces and voices, but not previously known to respond to smells.

These experiments, along with earlier work by Chen, establish that BO can function as a chemosignal that conveys the emotional state of the odor donor. Having ruled out counter-explanations—the intensity or pleasantness of the BO doesn’t matter, for example—Chen proposes that BO chemosignals are produced and perceived as a consequence of human evolution.

I think she’s on to something.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Puzzling Out Odor Receptors


A new paper in a rather specialized scientific journal has exciting news for those of us who eagerly anticipate a revolution in olfactory biotechnology.

Humans have about four hundred different olfactory receptors; other mammals have even more. There are thousands of potentially smellable volatile molecules in the world. Ever since the discovery of the olfactory receptor genes in 1991 the big question has been: which odor molecules are detected by which receptors? Until we can answer that question, we cannot truly say that we understand the biological basis of odor perception.

The standard way to investigate the function of a receptor is to express it in cell culture—that is, one inserts the receptor gene into a yeast cell, for example, and the yeast cell obligingly reads the new DNA, creates the receptor, and places it in the cell membrane all ready to go. Do this for enough different receptors and soon you can see which of them respond to rose alcohol, which to vanillin, etc. When automated on an industrial scale this is called high-throughput screening—a standard procedure in pharmaceutical research.

Olfactory receptors have proven exceptionally difficult to express. We’ve been able to match odors to receptors here and there in only about 50 instances; to make real progress we need to do it thousands of times under standard conditions. Recently Dr. Hiro Matsunami’s lab at Duke University created cell lines and test protocols suitable for high-throughput screening. This week they reported on the first large-scale matching of receptors to odor molecules.

Their results are in the March 3rd issue of Science Signaling. They tested 219 mouse receptors and 245 human receptors against 93 different odorants. Some receptors didn’t respond to any of the odorants; others responded to several. Some odorants activated only a couple of receptors; other activated many. As you can imagine, analyzing data on this scale is a challenge.

Ultimately, the Duke group wants to predict which odor receptors are activated by which molecules. They created a big database of odor molecules and used statistical techniques to extract a few physical properties that predict similar receptor responses. On the other hand they created an olfactory receptor database and statistical means of grouping receptors that respond to similar odors. They can now begin to discern which sort of molecules match up to which sort of receptors. Although their conclusions are abstract and very tentative, the Duke group has taken the first step toward making sense of high-throughput data and answering the Big Question.

On a practical level, their challenge is like the one you face when doing a jigsaw puzzle without the knowing the final picture. First, you dump the pieces on the table and start sorting. Light blue pieces with streaks of white go in one pile—they could be sky with clouds or whitecaps on ocean waves. Dappled brown and green pieces go in another pile—they might be tree leaves or a forest path. Pieces with straight sides go in a third pile—they’re the edges of the picture. In other words, you can start sorting without knowing exactly where the pieces fit in the picture.

Substitute “eigenvalue sum from van der Waals weighted distance matrix” for “light blue pieces with streaks of white” and you get an idea of what the Duke group is up to. The fun comes once we get the puzzle put together—when we can match every molecule to a receptor and vice versa. Then we can design highly specific odor blockers and odor enhancers, and even, perhaps, predict what perfumes a person will like. Stuart Firestein and I outlined some of the possibilities in a Nature Neuroscience paper which you can download here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Breaking Wind is Breaking News


Nothing disrupts the solemn formality (and tedium) of a city council meeting better than an audible fart. This one was captured on video in Medina, Ohio.

[Via Drudge and Fox8 in Cleveland.]

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Odor Memory Before Proust: Dr. Thomas and the Bohemian Fruit Boat


Marcel Proust is the official poster boy for odor-evoked memory. As I’ve pointed out before, this is wrong on several levels. First of all, the madeleine episode in Swann’s Way doesn’t describe the magical experience most of us associate with smell memory, namely a vivid, detailed, and instantaneous recollection of the past. Instead, Proust’s narrator struggles to capture a vague emotion and takes several minutes to locate it in time and place.

Secondly, Proust was not the first writer to describe the phenomenon of odor-evoked memory. It was, as I showed in my book, a common theme in American (and French) literature for many decades before the publication of Swann’s Way.

Finally, despite Jonah Lehrer’s fanciful spin, Proust was not a neuroscientist. The notion that he uncovered “an essential truth about the mind that science is only now rediscovering” is lot of baloney. Here’s another reason why: a scientific paper published in 1896—thirteen years before Prousts novel appeared.

The paper appeared in German in the Journal for the Psychology and Physiology of the Sense Organs. The author was Dr. Fr. Thomas of Ohrdruf, Germany. From what I can gather, Thomas was a priest with a doctorate in natural science—his specialty was the entomology of mite galls.

In his paper—“A further example of association through a smell sensation as a subconscious intermediary”—Thomas gives a detailed, autobiographical account of an odor-evoked memory. Here’s the key part (with paragraph breaks added):
In the spring of 1861 I was a student in Berlin. My daily route to the University took me along Artilleriestrasse over the Eberts Bridge. One day in the late fall of 1861, as I crossed the bridge fully immersed in thought, there suddenly appeared before me the Hüttenthal Valley near Königstein in the mountains of Saxony, where I had lived for a long time many years earlier, so lifelike in front of my eyes, that I could not understand how the direction of my thoughts could have been changed all at once.

I was in a hurry to be on time for a lecture and so immediately picked up again the broken thread of my earlier thoughts. The next day at the same hour—I had not thought again about this incident since then—the same thing happened! I stopped cold, as the return to this exact same place was simply too remarkable. I took a few steps backward, slowly and concentrating my attention, when the source became clear to me:

Near the bridge was berthed a Bohemian fruit boat, whose owner had his wares for sale in tubs hung on the railing of the bridge, while the boat itself served as a floating supply cellar and living space for its occupant. The Bohemian had brought brown coal with him as cheap heating fuel. The smell of the smoke from this coal, that had also been commonly used in Hüttenthal, had called up/awakened the memory picture to me.

In Gotha and Jena, where I had also lived before 1861, this heating material was not used. To me it was the same smoke smell that had been new to me in the Saxony mountains, and so become an integral part of the total picture of that new world for me, and it was able three years later to call forth this picture again.
Although it appeared in a scientific journal, this account is quite literary and quite “Proustian”: a narrator is initially baffled by the sudden appearance of a forgotten scene; with an effort he eventually recognizes that his memory was triggered by a smell. Unlike Proust, Dr. Fr. Thomas really was a neuroscientist—and not a bad memoirist either. His paper is another reason to take Proust off the pedestal and acknowledge that science nailed odor memory without the help of any novelist.

[Source: Dr. Fr. Thomas, Ein weiteres Beispiel von Assoziation durch eine Geruchsempfindung als unbewuβtes Mittleglied. Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane 1896:12:60-61. My thanks to Ernest Sanders for the translation.]

Thursday, March 5, 2009

American Smellscapes: Esther Wu Maps Urban Doughnut Aroma


When I lectured along with Stuart Firestein at Purchase College last week, one of my topics was American smellscapes. I spoke about odor mapping, including Gawker’s New York City Subway Smell Map, Japan’s Smell Club, and my mapping of the recent St. Louis Big Stink.

A few days later I got an email from a graphic designer named Esther Wu. A friend of hers had been in the audience and told her about my fascination with smell maps.

For an art school project, Wu decided to graphically display her observations about the smell of a Dunkin’ Donuts shop that she walked past on the way from the subway to the design studio. For a couple of weeks she systematically noted where she detected the aroma as well as the time and weather conditions.

She assembled and visually summarized all this information in a beautifully thought-out graphic. It’s a marvel of concise data display. I’ve posted a fragment of it above and I encourage you to visit her site to view the whole stylish piece.

The lack of visual representations is one of the difficulties in studying the psychology of odor perception. Chemists have models of molecular structure and anatomists can trace the olfactory nerves with dyes. But for smells loose in the real world, psychologists and odor trackers need a compelling visual representation. Esther Wu’s artistic approach is a great starting point.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Perfume Goes Postal with Smelly Stamps


As a kid I used to collect stamps—an appropriately obsessive hobby for a future scientist. Little did I know that my adult preoccupation with smell would intersect with my juvenile philatomania.

Last week, the Slovak Post issued an Easter stamp scented with narcissus. By my count, it’s the twentieth country to issue a scented postage stamp since 1973. That was the year Bhutan came out with a set of floral stamps printed on rose-scented paper. The idea didn’t take the postal world by storm. Nothing happened until 1999 when Brazil issued a set that drew attention to forest fire prevention: the stamps were printed on recycled paper saturated with the scent of burnt wood. In 2001, Brazil celebrated its coffee industry with a design featuring a sprig of coffee cherries, a bag of roasted beans, and a steaming cup of joe; the ink contained a coffee scent that could be released by rubbing.


The following year, New Caledonia pulled a copy cat and issued its own coffee-scented stamps.

In 2004, Brazil used scented stamps to showcase a sweet-smelling native grass called priprioca (Cyperus articulatus) used in perfumery. New Caledonia countered with an odorized, three-stamp set celebrating its sandalwood production.


The Korean post office has gone for scent in a big way, with six different issues (mostly flowers). In 2000, it produced one of the weirdest designs ever: a heart-shaped stamp featuring a cartoonish pink hand displaying the ASL sign for “love” holding a rose (and smelling of . . . rose).


Scenting methods have evolved since Bhutan perfumed the stamp paper—that smell lasted three to five months at best. The current approach is to mix microencapsulated fragrance into the printing ink; the scent is released only when the stamp is rubbed. Done properly, this process preserves the smell for years. The Russian Federation used an offbeat method in its 2003 “Gifts of Nature” series that featured various fruits: it scented the gum on the back side.


By far the most common postal scent is rose: it’s cheap and easy to make. Floral notes such as lily and jasmine are also popular. Among the more unusual fragrance directions are jasmine tea (Hong Kong, 2001), eucalyptus (Great Britain, 2001), cinnamon (Luxembourg, Christmas 2002), chocolate (Switzerland, 2001), and new-mown grass (Australia, 2000).


I think it’s time the U.S. Postal Service joined the party. How about a Boston Tea Party commemorative? Or one for the Washington, D.C. cherry blossom festival? A mint julep scent to celebrate the Kentucky Derby. Why not a series of classic hot rods with scents of burnt rubber, gasoline and asphalt? A firearm series of historic muskets and revolvers with a gunpowder scent would be cool too.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Slumdog Psychophysicist


A week after our Oscar party I get to indulge my own West Coast red carpet fantasies.

The Los Angeles Times just announced the finalists for its 2008 Book Prizes, and What the Nose Knows is nominated for the Science & Technology award.

The nod comes with a plane ticket to the awards ceremony on April 24th where the winners will be announced. It’s also the kickoff for that weekend’s Los Angeles Festival of Books, one of the country’s biggest literary events for the public.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled to be selected. And I’m really looking forward to meeting more of my readers at the Festival.

UPDATE March 3, 2009
More on the 2008 Book Prizes here, and on the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books here.