Friday, October 30, 2009

“The Smell of Virtue”: Drive-by Research Trivializes Both Science and Morality



A smell study made a big splash this week. It was an item on Instapundit, the British press ran with it, as did Time, and ScienceDaily obligingly published an edited version of a university press release.

What generated such boffo attention? A research paper slated for Psychological Science. Among its chief attractions for the media are a confident, catchy title (“The Smell of Virtue: Clean Scents Promote Reciprocity and Charity”), brevity (at 1,500 words it’s the length of a large-ish blog post), and breezy quotability (“there is some truth to the claim that cleanliness is next to godliness”). If there’s such a thing as science by sound bite, this is it.

The authors are a trio of B-school academics: Katie Liljenquist is an assistant professor of Organizational Relationships and Strategy at BYU, Chen-Bo Zhong teaches Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, and Adam Galinsky is a professor of Ethics and Decision Management at Northwestern’s Kellogg School. Liljenquist and Zhong are his recent doctoral students.

The first of their two experiments is in the contrived style of the “prisoner’s dilemma” genre. The test subject is led into a room and told that a stranger in another room was given $4 and promised that any portion he chose to send the test subject would be tripled. The stranger supposedly sent the full $4 and it is now up to the test subject to decided how much, if any, of the money to return to the sender. While the economically rational thing to do is to keep the entire $12, most people return a portion of the money. This delights economists and game theorists who take it as evidence of human irrationality, while social scientists see it as evidence of a deeply ingrained social impulse to altruism and reciprocity.

The experiment was conducted in two rooms identical but for a spritz of citrus-scented Windex. The Windex scent pushed the amount of money returned to $5.33 from $2.81. Put another way, the Windex sniffers pocketed an average of $6.67. These guys are unlikely to be taking a monastic vow of poverty anytime soon.

In the second experiment, test subjects were put in the Windex-scented or the non-scented room and “asked to work on a packet of unrelated tasks.” (Yes, that’s the entire methods description provided by Liljenquist et al. Sort of the scientific equivalent of yadda-yadda-yadda.) The packet contained a flier soliciting volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. The test subjects were asked to rate their willingness to volunteer. The Windex treatment increased interest in volunteering by nine-tenths of a point on a seven-point rating scale, just enough to tip the needle over the 4.0 point of indifference.

(How many interest-in-volunteering points does it take to actually get a Habitat for Humanity house built? Silly question. Lab-based social science is a form of Kabuki: you can marvel at its stylized beauty but you’d never mistake it for real life.)

What do the authors conclude from their data?
The current findings suggest there is some truth to the claim that cleanliness is next to godliness; clean scents summon virtue, helping reciprocity prevail over greed, and charity over apathy.
Gag. The editors at Psychological Science (to which I subscribe and in which I’ve published) should be ashamed of themselves for letting this sentence stand: it is sophomorically overwritten press bait. (Yet it worked!) Note too the inaccurate use of “clean scents” in the plural: only one scent was tested.

The use of only a single scent ought to have been a red flag to the paper’s reviewers: it severely limits the conclusions that can be drawn. Years ago Robert Baron found that people in a mall were more likely to help a stranger (e.g., pick up a dropped pen) when the scent from the Cinnabon store was in the air. Suppose the Liljenquist team had spritzed cinnamon bun aroma and it boosted the amount of volunteerism and returned money. Would they conclude that sweetness is next to godliness? (Awkward!) They’d be reduced to “nice smells promote nice behavior.”

The authors invoke the “broken windows” theory of criminal behavior which holds that “damage and disrepair in the environment promote lawless behavior.” So why not run an unpleasant scent condition? Volunteerism and returned money should decrease in a stale-smelling room. Working the cleanliness/reciprocity link in both directions would be a far more compelling result. But then it wouldn’t be nearly as nifty a sound bite.

The authors’ disconnection from matters olfactory is matched by their odd view of virtue, morality, and moral behavior. In setting the stage for moral implications they name check various deep thinkers: Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcel Proust, and . . . George Lakoff. (Which of these names doesn’t belong with the others?)

Then they float their big idea: due to the symbolic association between physical and moral purity,
clean smells might not only regulate physical cleanliness, but may also motivate virtuous behavior.
So how does a clean smell “motivate” virtuous behavior? What’s the thought process? I think it might be something like this:
“Hmmm . . . smells clean in here. A decent sort of place. And I’m a decent sort of person. How much money to return? Here, take $10.”
A less moral person might think:
“Hmmm . . . smells like someone just cleaned this room. This place is a bit fussy—best not to annoy them. Habitat for Humanity? Sure, I’d volunteer.”
So how do Liljenquist et al. explain the motivation? They don’t!
The link from cleanliness to virtuous behavior appears to be a nonconscious one: in neither experiment did participants recognize an influence of scent on their behavior.
[Another yadda-yadda moment: we’re never told when or how the participants were debriefed about smell. As phrased, they could have told the researchers they noticed a scent but denied that it influenced them. Who on earth reviewed this paper?]

Team Liljenquist thinks Windex smell produced a more “virtuous” result without the conscious awareness of the participants. But can a person be said to behave virtuously when he is unaware of doing so? Am I virtuous when the wind pulls a $5 bill from my pocket while I’m distracted and floats it into the hands of a hungry orphan? Hardly. Yet by Liljenquist logic I’m a saint.

Moral reasoning holds no interest for the authors. Here’s how they see things:
These findings carry important implications for environmental regulation of behavior. . . . the current research identifies an unobtrusive way—a clean scent—to curb exploitation and promote altruism.
Despite the hype, this study isn’t about virtue or godliness, nor does it engage morality at a conceptual level. This paper is about a smug idea for controlling the behavior of others for their own good without their awareness. It’s about encouraging charity at the point of a trigger spray.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Scent From Beyond: The Spirit Smells of W.B. Yeats



Our Spectral Tour of olfactory ghost stories is turning out to be shorter than expected. I thought smells would be the perfect, uh, medium for unsettled spirits to make themselves known to the world of the living. Apart from a beautifully sentimental 19th century poem, and a more recent novel, the pickings have been slim. Not so much as a farting poltergeist.

In What the Nose Knows I described how some artists, like William Faulkner, weave themes of smell into their work, while others use scent to kick-start their creative engines (Richard Wagner and Emily Dickinson for example). Among the latter I would now include the fine Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who thus becomes the last stop on our tour. (Even if you don’t care for poetry The Second Coming will grab you attention: it’s an apocalypse in two short verses.)

Yeats apparently went through at least one extended period of preoccupation with spiritualism and the occult. He and his wife experimented with “automatic writing” and sleep talking. His book A Vision was an attempt to organize these spirit-inspired cogitations into coherent prose. He relates the various ways the “communicators” made contact:
Sweet smells were the most constant phenomena, now that of incense, now that of violets or roses or some other flower, and as perceptible to some half-dozen of our friends as to ourselves, though upon one occasion when my wife smelt hyacinth a friend smelt eau-de-cologne.

. . . Such smells came most often to my wife and myself when we passed through a door or were in some small enclosed place, but sometimes would form themselves in my pocket or even in the palms of my hands.

. . . I seldom knew why such smells came, nor why one sort rather than another, but sometimes they approved something said.

. . . Sometimes if I had been ill some astringent smell like that of resinous wood filled the room, and sometimes, though rarely, a bad smell. These were often warnings: a smell of cat’s excrement announced some being that had to be expelled, the smell of an extinguished candle that the communicators were ‘starved’.

. . . I can discover no apparent difference between a natural smell and a supernatural smell, except that the natural smell comes and goes gradually while the other is suddenly there and then as suddenly gone. But there were other phenomena. Sometimes they commented on my thoughts by the ringing of a little bell heard by my wife alone . . .
Yeats categorized his various spirit guides into instructors, communicators, frustrators, etc. The substance of A Vision—the wisdom Yeats distilled from the smells and bells—consists of stuff like this:
At the opening of Book V is a diagram where every date was fixed by my instructors. They have adopted a system of cones not used elsewhere in this exposition. If one ignores the black numbers it is simple enough. It shows the gyre of religion expanding as that of secular life contracts, until at the eleventh century the movements are reversed. Mask and Body of Fate are religion, Will and Creative Mind secular life. My instructors have inserted the black numbers because it enables them to bring into a straight line four periods corresponding to the Four Faculties that are in Flinders Petrie’s sense of the word ‘contemporaneous.’ . . . If we keep the straight line passing through the Four Faculties of the same length as the bases of the triangles we can mark upon it the twenty-eight phases, putting Phase 1 at the left hand, and the line will show what the position of the Faculties would be upon an ordinary double cone which completed its movement in the two thousand years of the era.
Riiiiight.

I have to say that this sort of stuff fails to move me. It’s not so much that it’s unscientific; rather it’s that the aesthetics of it—the numerology, the spirit hierarchies, the obsession with parallelisms—bore me to tears.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer, but the poet can smell the Beyond. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the spirit messages were blarney; delusions can be the means to great art.

The Odor of Sanctity



First this. Now this, from Gawker: “The deification of Michael Jackson has entered the crucial olfactory stage.”

Monday, October 26, 2009

Tiny Bubbles


Brittany Ghiroli at MLB.com conjured a Bronx smellscape last night:

NEW YORK—The scent of champagne floated down the long corridor leading to the Yankees’ clubhouse, wafting through the double doors and straight into a frenzied mosh pit of players, each so soaked that their shirts clung to their back like a second skin. 

“We knew what we had in store for us at home,” Joba Chamberlain said, spewing drips of champagne with every punctuation as he took in the emotions following the Yankees’ 5-2 American League Championship Series-clinching victory over the Angels on Sunday.
Champagne is the celebratory drink par excellence—and the bubbles make it so. A Yankee’s locker room reeking of Riesling wouldn’t be half the fun.

Turns out that bubbles are a key physical factor in delivering the sensory impact of champagne: they literally bring out its characteristic aroma. Or so says a Franco-German research team in a paper published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team was made up of super-intense chemists and oenologists, the kind of nerds who write things like this:

Champagne and sparkling wines are multicomponent hydro-alcoholic solutions supersaturated with CO2-dissolved gas molecules (formed together with ethanol during the fermentation process).
OK, so maybe they’re not the life of the party. But stay out of their way in the lab. Seriously. These guys are the first to apply Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry to the fizz of champagne.

Here’s the deal: lots of the aroma molecules in champagne are amphiphilic surfactants, which means that one part of the molecule is hydrophilic and another is hydrophobic. At a fluid-air interface, the hydrophilic end of the molecule dives into the fluid and the hydrophobic part orients to the air. The surface of the champagne in your glass is a fluid-air interface, but so are each of the tiny bubbles rising to the surface. The amphiphilic aroma molecules arrange themselves around the skin of every bubble and ride it to the surface. Once there, the bubble pops and creates a burst of aroma-enriched aerosol (the fizz!). 

At least that was the theory proposed a few years back which the team, lead by a fellow with the outstanding name of Gérard Liger-Belair, has now confirmed. They used ultrahigh-resolution mass spectrometry to compare the organic molecules deep in the wine glass with those in the aerosol fizz just under the drinker’s nose. (Can you imagine how Docteur Gérard Liger-Belair would react to Derek Jeter hosing down Mariano Rivera with a shaken bottle of vintage Veuve Cliquot? He’d probably cry.) 

The research team found 163 molecules (well, technically “exact mass signals”) that were more common in the fizz than in the wine. Among these were molecules traceable to the original grapes and to the yeast cells that transformed them into wine. Also more common in the fizz were molecules known to contribute various toasty, herbaceous, and fruity notes characteristic of champagne. So it seems that bubbles do bring out the flavor.

The chemical analysis was extremely precise, but that doesn’t mean the sensory effects are small. The authors estimate that about 5 liters of CO2 escape from every 750 ml bottle of champagne. Since the average bubble is half a millimeter in diameter we’re talking about 10,000,000 bubbles with a total surface area of 80 square meters. That a lot of aroma-concentrating power per bottle.

Doesn’t that make you thirsty? Here at FirstNerve headquarters we like to sip bubbly while listening to tunes on one of our state-of-the-art 8-track stereo cartridges. À votre santé, Dr. Liger-Belair!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Paranormal Olfactory: The smells of The Haunted Hotel


In keeping with the darkening mood of October and the approach of Halloween I recently embarked on a survey of smelly phantasms in literature. 

My reasoning was simple:
Smells are haunting in more ways than one: they are invisible, they sneak up on you, and they can disappear quickly. Smells go hand in glove with faded memories, lost love, fear, anxiety, and unfulfillable yearnings.
Because smells seem ready-made for ghost stories I anticipated an extended ride on the spectral tour bus, with stops at all kinds of overlooked and long-forgotten fictional destinations. Indeed, thing began well. There was the sweet fragrance of mignonette, a ghostly reminder of unfulfilled love from Bret Harte’s A Newport Romance. Then there was the telltale Parfum Mimosa which announced one of a pair of dueling ghosts in Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited. I was on a roll.

Accordingly, I opened The Haunted Hotel with anticipation, having seen this Victorian-era novel by Wilkie Collins cited as a fine example of a smelly ghost story. Alas! (as the Victorians were fond of saying) I was disappointed. It’s a rather stiff story, full of Lord So-and-So and Lady Such-and-Such, and who’s where in line for this or that hereditary title. There’s a love story of sorts, conducted mostly with shy feminine glances and repeated declarations of manly devotion, in the manner of Dudley Do-Right. The starchy characters are matched by a labored writing style. Adding to the tedium, some chapters begin shortly before the last one left off. This artifact of the novel’s original publication in serialized form is the 19th century version of “Last week on 24 . . .”

The Haunted Hotel is really a whodunnit. The cadaverous-looking, overly-dramatic and barely coherent Countess Narona marries a British peer who soon falls ill and dies while staying at an old palazzo in Venice. The circumstances are fishy: Lord Montbarry had taken out a life insurance policy that would pay off big time for his new bride. She herself is an exotic Eastern European with a questionable resume. Her brother, the Baron Rivar, is a notorious gambler and amateur chemist. 

What give the story it’s feeble claim on the supernatural are the bad dreams had by Montbarry’s kin when they sleep in the room where he died—the palazzo having since been made over into a hotel. Then there’s the smell:
He became conscious of a mysteriously offensive odour in the room, entirely new in his experience of revolting smells. It was composed (if such a thing could be) of two mingling exhalations, which were separately-discoverable exhalations nevertheless. This strange blending of odors consisted of something faintly and unpleasantly aromatic, mixed with another underlying smell, so unutterably sickening that he threw open the window, and put his head out into the fresh air, unable to endure the horribly infected atmosphere for a moment longer.
It turns out this double-barreled smell [yes here’s the obligatory spoiler alert, although no one without a lot of time on his hands and a high boredom threshold will seek out this particular volume] was that of a chemically preserved corpse stashed in a hidden crawl space in the hotel. In other words, the smell is a foreshadowing clue in a whodunnit and not an other-worldly message at all.

Boo. What a bummer.

So much for this stop on the olfactory ghost tour. Time to climb back on the bus and hope for better luck next time. Anybody have any gum?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Sad Scent of Champagne?


Sometimes context is everything.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The WSJ on Michelle Roark’s Phi-nomenal Fragrances


The Wall Street Journal is best when it sticks to its knitting—financial reporting. Lately, however, it’s been strenuously transforming itself into a general interest newspaper with lifestyle stories, sports pages, helpful household hints, and lots and lots of space-filling pictures (oooh, pictures!).

The latest fluff to float off the Journal’s pages is by Matthew Futterman. He usually churns out sports copy but on Thursday he put his Columbia J-school-certified talent to work on a “Life & Style” story about champion freestyle skier Michelle Roark. The hook: Roark uses a performance-enhancing scent of her own design during ski competition and now makes a business selling it.

Futterman’s piece on Roark illustrates two problems with the Journal’s new hey-we’re-just-like-any-other-paper pose: it’s neither timely nor incisive.  

Let’s start with timely. Michelle Roark has been getting press for her “freestyle skier turns perfumer entrepreneur” story for months: The Deseret News in January 2008, Christian Science Monitor in June, 2008, BusinessWeek in July 2008, Denver Post in January 2009. Last month she was featured in a piece by Howard Berkes on NPR. And two days before Futterman’s piece a Denver Post story made many of the same points.

According to Futterman, Roark’s business “is only in its early stages, with most of her customers local acquaintances in the Denver area.” He also tells us that she “has a salon/spa and perfumery set to open in December.” In other words, this is a story about buzz, not achievement. Unfortunately, the buzz is stale. Worse, it seems inaccurate: according to the other stories, Roark’s perfumery/spa in Denver has been open for months.

Then there’s the matter of incisiveness. Roark sells six blends of essential oils named Confidence, Balance, Focus, etc.

Ms. Roark mixes all of the potions herself at her lab in Denver. She bases the ratios of the oils in her blends on the “Golden Ratio,” also known as the phi, or the number 1.618.
Hear that noise? It’s the alarm on the all-new digital FirstNerve Bogosity Meter—it’s going crazy! It’s not enough that Roark is a champion athlete with a flair for fragrance and self-medication. She’s also discovered a new principle of perfumery: Golden Ratios! Fire Jean-Claude Ellena and get me the new algorithm!

(Yes, I’m aware that Octavian Sever Coifan over at 1000Fragrances recently blogged about the Golden Ratio in perfumery. I have a hard time following his argument but it seems to be about aesthetic principles, not formulation-by-the-numbers.)

Roark’s U.S. Patent Application 20070042933 is titled “Fragrances, cosmetics and other body products based on Phi.” (Her company is called Phi-nomenal Fragrances.) Here’s a taste:
Accordingly, the first embodiment perfume relates to Phi in at least three ways: (i) all ingredients are present in Fibonacci series integer unit multiples; (ii) The ratio of the perfume base to perfume concentrate is Phi; and (iii) the number of ingredients in the perfume is a Fibonacci series integer.
According to Roark, a perfume formula with x ingredients is a Phi-nomenal fragrance if x is a number in the Fibonacci series {1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 . . . .}. Bulgarian rose oil counts as a single ingredient, but so does pure phenylethyl alcohol which is a component of rose oil. And what’s to stop Roark from pre-diluting her raw materials so that they can be combined in perfect Golden Ratios? With rules this fuzzy, I could blend a perfume that corresponds to my area code and phone number.

There’s no hint of reportorial skepticism in Futterman’s story—he could have called any perfumer for a reality check but he didn’t.

Flufferman attempts to give his story some balance by quoting two other people.
Jim Fannin, a motivational guru who has worked with athletes including Alex Rodriguez, said he does not believe there is a universal scent that inspires confidence.
Dude! Quoting a self-identified motivational guru doesn’t inspire confidence either. From the guru’s web site:
More than a ‘life’ coach, Jim Fannin is a ‘change your life’ coach. His S.C.O.R.E.© System empowers people to swiftly become the best they can without inconvenience. Period.
Hey! Will someone please hit the mute button on the Bogosity Meter? Cool. Thanks.

Futterman then delivers this knuckleball:
“The scent is an artifact of the expectation,” said Bert Hayslip, a professor of psychology at the University of North Texas. “An athlete believes it’s important to success, so therefore it is important.”
Whaaaa? How much nonsense can a Regents Professor of Psychology pack into a two sentence quote?

When Michelle Roark sniffs her blend to get into a certain frame of mind, the scent is not an artifact of anything—it’s a scent! The second sentence, which amounts to “wishing makes it so”, is a non sequitur. Professor Hayslip is a prolific researcher on the topic of human aging; he seems out of his depth on the topic of smell and motivation. 

The Wall Street Journal has given us a stale, muddled, bite-sized, lifestyle story dressed up as a groovy buzz piece. Pretty lame stuff. I don’t think it augers well for the paper’s new market positioning which seems to be “We’re just like the New York Times but with a differently flavored editorial page!”

As a fellow smell entrepreneur, I don’t begrudge Michelle Roark her moment in the sun. (In fact, I wish her well.) Nor do I have an opinion on the quality of her fragrances, which I’ve never smelled. For all I know they are very nice and even helpful in achieving certain mental states. It’s just that I won’t be taking Matthew Futterman’s word for any of it.

[Hat tip to Mark G.]

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

New York Bans the Smell of Autumn


The Middletown Times-Herald Record has the story: no more leaf burning in the Empire State as of today. It’s for your own good of course. Environmental edicts always are.

So who’s the grinch that stole the last smells of fall? That would be Peter Grannis, the Commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. And who elected him? Well, nobody—environmental stewardship is too important to be left to the whims of the electorate. Mr. Grannis was appointed by the recently humiliated governor of New York. No, not that guy. The sex-with-a-call-girl guy.

And what qualifies Mr. Grannis to be environmental commissioner—his scientific background perhaps? No, he has none. He’s a political hack: a lawyer who spent years in the state Assembly representing Manhattan’s gritty Upper East Side. His crusade against “deadly second hand smoke” won him the rapturous applause of anti-tobacco zealots and the Lung Association. According to his official bio, his pastimes include spearheading government intrusions into the markets for housing, auto and flood insurance, and health care. Free people and free markets be damned.

But who wants to make a big deal about those piles of smouldering leaves, anyway? Perfumistas should, that’s who. When Mr. Gannis proposes to ban perfume because of its high VOC content and potentially toxic trace components, do you think his fans at the American Lung Association, the Audubon Society, the Environmental Action Coalition, Common Cause, and the New York State Public Interest Group will suddenly pause, tug at his sleeve and say, “Hey, Pete, maybe we shouldn’t sacrifice beautiful fragrances on the alter of Gaia worship—let’s leave them alone”?

I don’t think so.

Today your leaves, tomorrow your cologne.

No burning leaves for you!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

ISDP: The Non-Nosey Neighbor Edition


Welcome to this month’s collection of macabre and malodorous incidents from the Dark Side. The timid and easily offended should seek amusement elsewhere, perhaps here.  

We begin with the case of the stinky “horrorcore” rapper. The horrorcore genre, for those of you hopelessly out of date with current musical trends, features “artists rhyming about raping, killing and mutilating people.”

Richard “Sam” McCroskey, 20, from Castro Valley, California, is an aspiring horrorcore artiste known professionally as “Syko Sam.” He’s suspected of killing his 16-year-old girlfriend, her father and mother, and another girl in Farmville, Virginia. Afterwards, he allegedly stole the father’s car and drove it into a ditch at four in the morning. Police ticketed him for driving without a license and had the car towed. The tow truck driver gave McCroskey a ride as did cab driver Curtis Gibson later that morning. 
Both drivers said they noticed a foul odor on McCroskey. Police have said some of the bodies found in the home were badly decomposed.

“It wasn’t something I’ve never smelled before,” Gibson said.
Grammar aside, we think we know what he means. May he never have to smell it again.

In WTNK, I nominated for a Norman Bates Award the lady who drove from Oklahoma to Florida for five days with the body of her dead mother in the car. A recent news story suggests a strong contender for the 2009 nomination:
A Sebastian woman who pleaded guilty to a criminal charge related to collecting her dead mother’s federal benefits for six years was ordered Monday to serve one year and one day in prison.

Penelope Jordan, 61, was arrested in late March by Sebastian police after they found the decaying body of her mother, Timmie Jordan, in a barricaded bedroom of their Wimbrow Drive home. Jordan told officials she kept the corpse there since her mother’s death in early 2003.
Six years and no whiff of suspicion? I guess Ms. Jordan didn’t have very nosey neighbors.

On September 15, Paula Devlin of The Times-Picayune reported a classic ISDP incident:
A fisherman hunting for grasshoppers found the nude corpse of a woman under a blanket Monday evening in a wooded area of eastern New Orleans, police said.

The man smelled a foul odor, then spotted a hand under a blanket in the 15200 block of Chef Menteur Highway, police said.
Also last month, sheriffs in Yuba County, California made an arrest in a July murder that never made it onto the ISDP radar. The deceased’s body was found when “when neighbors noticed a foul odor coming from his apartment.”

In last month’s edition we told you about the folks in Bloomington, Indiana who thought they were smelling a nearby sewage treatment plant when, in fact, they were detecting the remains of 24-year-old Johnny Turnpaugh. On September 18, Nicholas C. Brooks pleaded not guilty to first degree murder in the case. According to reporter Edith Brady-Lunny, Brooks is charged with “stabbing Turnpaugh and penetrating his skull with an unknown object.” This makes the story’s headline somewhat counter-intuitive:
Normal man pleads not guilty in slaying of 24-year-old.
Finally, although we don’t usually cover foreign affairs at ISDP, this item from Penampang, Malaysia caught our attention. 
Followers of a cult here kept the body of their leader wrapped in plastic for 13 months after his death, while praying for him to be resurrected.

Police remained tight-lipped over the bizarre discovery but it is believed that the body was badly decomposed but neighbours had not complained of a foul smell.

Whoa! So what did draw their attention?

complaints on the chanting of prayers late into the night.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Another Haunting Perfume: Ghosts of “The Uninvited”


As the October nights grow longer and colder, we here at FirstNerve Manor—that Gothic pile down at the end of Lonely Street—like to retire to the study, pour ourselves a brandy, and settle down in front of the fire with a classic ghost story. Naturally (or perhaps unnaturally) our favorites involve specters that announce themselves by smell.

Smells are haunting in more ways than one: they are invisible, they sneak up on you, and they can disappear quickly. Smells go hand in glove with faded memories, lost love, fear, anxiety, and unfulfillable yearnings.

One of the volumes we dust off this time of year is The Uninvited, a 1942 novel by Dorothy Macardle. Set in England in the 1930s, the story centers on Cliff End, an old seaside house in Devonshire. Owned by Commander Meredith, a retired naval officer, it has been empty since the death of his sainted daughter Mary some fifteen years earlier. He now lives in the nearby town with his grand-daughter Stella. The girl’s father, the debauched painter Llewellyn Meredith, died some years after his wife. 

The story’s narrator is Roderick “Roddy” Fitzgerald a young but well-established literary critic who is looking to make a break from the London scene. He wants to find a place in the country to live with his sister Pamela who needs to recuperate after six years spent caring for their late, ailing father.

The siblings happen upon Cliff End and convince the reluctant Commander to sell it. Roddy is charmed by Stella who is a strange mix of upright formality and girlish warmth. Soon enough the new owners experience supernatural “disturbances”—moaning, sobbing voices, vaporous apparitions, cold air, and the sweet smell of Parfum Mimosa. The locals believe these are the caused by the uneasy spirit of Mary Meredith who was killed in a suspicious fall from the cliff. The incident involved a beautiful and mercurial Spanish woman named Carmel, who was Llewellyn’s artist model and more.

Stella worships the memory of her mother and wears Parfum Mimosa herself. The fact that she and the Fitzgeralds associate the spectral perfume with comforting and warm emotions (in contrast to the terrifying, fog-like ghost that also visits) is an early clue that the haunting of Cliff End is the result of dueling spirits.

The plot involves lots of characters and plenty of misdirection. There’s Father Anson the priest who recommends exorcism, Lizzie Flynn, the Fitzgerald’s longtime cook and housekeeper, Dr. Scott the socially inept town doctor who’s soft on Pamela, and the daunting Miss Holloway, proprietor of the Centre of Healing through Harmony who was a nurse to Mary Meredith and later Stella’s governess. Roderick and his sister go down several blind alleys in their attempts to unravel the mystery—which become more desperate once Roderick falls in love with Stella and the Commander decides to send her away. 

Parfum Mimosa—its sweet floral character, its origins, and its mood effects—is one of the keys that eventually reveals the true identities of the story’s ghosts. Macardle deftly weaves the perfume into the story, along with occasional other smells that bring the local settings to life. Perhaps because it’s a British novel of a certain vintage, the characters do an enormous amount of eating, drinking and smoking. It’s a hard book to read without having something handy to munch on . . .

In 1944 The Uninivited was made into a movie starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as the Fitzgeralds and Gail Russell as Stella. The film score by Victor Young included the instrumental theme song Stella by Starlight. Ned Washington set lyrics to it a couple of years later and it’s been a jazz standard ever since.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dim the House Lights, Raise the Smells


On the Los Angeles Times Culture Monster blog, Diane Haithman writes about an upcoming scented theater production. It’s Kenneth Lin’s Po Boy Tango which is being premiered by the East West Players at LA’s David Henry Hwang Theater.

During the show, which has a cooking theme, the theater plans to pipe into the house the actual scents of traditional Chinese cooking—ginger, garlic and such.
Neato! 

To Haithman it’s reminiscent of 1960’s Smell-O-Vision, but fans of What the Nose Knows will have a longer view:
The innovative American director and stage designer David Belasco was an early adopter of olfactory special effects. In 1897, he directed a play set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His staging impressed the New York Times: “The senses of sight, hearing, and smell are violently appealed to for the sake of creating an illusion; for the perfume of Chinese punk fills the theatre and the music is as Chinese as possible.” . . .

In 1912 he created a detailed stage replica of a Child’s Restaurant (a then-famous New York chain), complete with a working stovetop on which the restaurant’s specialty pancakes were prepared during the show.
Tickets and performance dates for Po Boy Tango are available here. To get to the Hwang Theater from the beach, take the 10 to the 110 to the 5 and exit at Los Angeles Street.

(How I envy the precision of LA driving directions. Nothing similar is possible in NJ.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

BUMP: Your Brain on BO


Psychologist and smell researcher Bettina Pause has commented on my earlier post about her BO study. She explains why her team does, in fact, think that smelling an anxious person transmits the anxiety to the smeller. Well worth reading.

Nasal NIMBYism: Ginkgobilobaphobia Sweeps America

Photo by Fritz Geller-Grimm.

The Telegraph’s “environment correspondent” Louise Gray writes about a growing backlash against gingko stink in the US. According to Ms. Gray,
In some US cities the trees are now being cut down for fear of pedestrians slipping on the fruit or because of complaints about the smell.
She says Easton, Pennsylvania, Bloomington, Minnesota, and Lexington, Kentucky have all banned female gingko trees.

So how bad is the smell? I described it in an American Smellscapes post:
My smell memories of Philly fester to this day. The streets between my apartment and the psych lab were lined with gingko trees and their ripe fruit would fall on the sidewalk and rot, giving off the stench of butyric acid (think stinky feet to the fifth power).
I should note that fetid gingko fruit has its fans. As I gingerly made my way to campus I would pass several old Chinese ladies gathering the stuff into garbage bags. They weren’t being altruistic: apparently they would cook off the smelly pulp and roast the tasty seeds.

Louise Gray’s article illustrates the cognitive dissonance experienced by the ecologically enlightened when they encounter a really bad smell. They can’t openly advocate the sex-based elimination of half a nonhuman species, no matter how stinky. So instead they promote the planting of more male trees to atone for the affront to Mother Gaia.
Guy Barter, Head of Gardening Advice at the Royal Horticultural Society, said more ginkgo were also likely to be planted in Britain in the future.

“With climate change they would be a good choice for the hotter, drier summers. We just have to make sure we plant male ones,” he said.
You have to love climate change: it can justify almost any social policy . . .

P.S. Ms. Gray is under the impression that Gingko biloba can spontaneously change sex. This is news to me, but I’m not a botanist. If true, it would knock Guy Barter's eco-atonement into a cocked hat. Any tree people out there care to comment?

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Ghostly Scent from Long Ago


It’s October, the days are growing shorter, the moon is full, and Halloween is not far off. What better time for a sentimentally fragrant ghost story?

One hundred and thirty-eight years ago this month, Bret Harte published a poem called “A Newport Romance” in The Atlantic Monthly. Harte, who made his bones with “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and other stories set in the California Gold Rush, was thirty-five years old at the time. He had just signed a record-setting $10,000 a year deal with the magazine to publish one story a month, and would soon give up his professorship at the University of California to move back East.

Harte’s poem is told by a fellow who lives in a haunted house by the seaside in Newport, Rhode Island. The spirit that lingers there is that of a previous owner, an elderly spinster who died waiting for her lover to return. 
And ever since then, when the clock strikes two,
She walks unbidden from room to room,
And the air is filled that she passes through
With a subtle, sad perfume.

The delicate odor of mignonette,
The ghost of a dead-and-gone bouquet,
Is all that tells of her story; yet
Could she think of a sweeter way?
Who is this lady? Is the setting of an old house in Newport just an arbitrary poetic fancy? Hardly. 

One hundred years earlier—in the summer of 1781—the Comte de Rochambeau and six thousand French soldiers arrived to aid the American Revolution. Rochambeau’s men camped in the fields of Newport and his officers were billeted in private homes in town, where they were well-received and entertained by the local Yankees. Rochambeau and his men left town in July, 1781 to join forces with George Washington and begin the siege of Yorktown. By October, Rochambeau and his countryman the Marquis de Lafayette had helped the Continental Army defeat Lord Cornwallis and the British. So Harte’s poetic story lines up nicely with historical fact. His love-struck Quaker lady of Newport met and fell in love with a French soldier under the command of Rochambeau.

But why the ghostly scent? Her Frenchman gave her scented bouquets which she kept as she waited for his return.
But she kept the posies of mignonette
That he gave; and ever as their bloom failed
And faded (though with her tears still wet)
Her youth with their own exhaled.
She would wait in vain until the end of her life—and even after, if the ghost story is to be believed. The narrator, evidently living alone in “this sad old house,” waits for the clock to strike two then sniffs expectantly:
Was it the trick of a sense o’erwrought
With outward watching and inward fret?
But I swear that the air just now was fraught
With the odor of mignonette!
He opens a window and gazes out at the ocean and at a nearby gas-lit house where a happy dance party is in progress—a scene that painfully contrasts with the loneliness of his sad old house. He sniffs again and comes to an exquisite olfactory insight:
And no odor of mignonette there is,
But the breath of morn on the dewy lawn;
And mayhap from causes as slight as this
The quaint old legend is born.
There you have it—the psychology of odor expectation in rhyming verse.

But wait, there’s more! Nearly a half century before Marcel Proust publishes his over-praised, madeleine-cued olfactory memories, Harte gives us the real deal:
But the soul of that subtle, sad perfume,
As the spiced embalmings, they say, outlast
The mummy laid in his rocky tomb,
Awakens my buried past.

And I think of the passion that shook my youth,
Of its aimless loves and its idle pains,
And am thankful now for the certain truth
That only the sweet remains.
Here Harte strikes a melancholy note so often found in poems and stories about remembered smells. Faded scent and faded memory are both elusive; we yearn to experience them vividly in the here-and-now, and are saddened by our inability to conjure the past. At the same time, their recollection brings us some small measure of happiness, selectively filtered by time.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Eye-opening Scents


When aromatherapy was starting to show up on the fragrance industry’s radar back in the 1990s, there was much interest in “objective” ways to measure mood response to scent. This was driven in part by the analytical chemistry mentality of corporate R&D departments. They demanded tangible evidence—a GC trace or a weighable reaction product qualified, mood questionnaires did not.

The upshot was a modest bunch of papers on reactions to fragrance using heart rate, blood pressure, Galvanic Skin Response (sweaty palms), EEG (brainwaves) and other methods from the psychophysiologist’s toolbox. The results were sometimes suggestive but they never evolved into the corporate marketer’s dream: a precise and accurate picture of what consumers thought when smelling a given scent. (It turns out that the best way to assess a person’s mood is just to ask him using standardized scales. Try telling that to a chemist.)

I was reminded of all this by an excellent new study from the University of Dresden. The Dresden team used an infrared pupillograph to measure a test subject’s pupil as he smelled various aromas. Pupil diameter is a sensitive and reliable index of activity in the sympathetic nervous system. For example, the pupil dilates in response to painful stimulation.

The main experiment smells were carefully selected. Phenylethyl alcohol smells like roses and is a “pure” olfactory stimulus. In other words, no matter how high the concentration it does not activate trigeminal nerve endings in the nose, those fibers responsible for sensing irritation or pain. Carbon dioxide is a “pure” trigeminal stimulus. It has no discernable odor, yet at sufficient concentration can tickle or even sting the nasal tissues via activation of the trigeminal nerve endings.

In the Dresden experiment each test subject sat with his head on a chin rest and stared at a spot about five feet away. Stimuli were delivered directly into his nose by a computer controlled olfactometer while the pupillograph recorded the diameter of his pupil. After the eyeball session, subjects rated the smells for intensity and pleasantness using standard 11-point rating scales (“just ask him”).

The results showed that the pupil responds to odor intensity but not odor quality. Pupil dilation was greatest in response to a higher level of carbon dioxide and least in response to any level of rose alcohol. The stronger the odor intensity, the faster the pupil changed size. The perceived pleasantness or unpleasantness of the stimulus made no difference to pupil dilation or response speed.

This is well done study that will set a new standard in the somewhat messy field of olfactory psychophysiology. It’s another reminder that we respond rapidly and unconsciously to nasal stimulation. But even though it’s a clean and satisfying scientific result, I’m afraid it will not set any fragrance marketer’s hair on fire. (“The new Calvin Klein—now with 17% more pupil power!”) But it ought to be enough to keep the chemists quiet.