Friday, December 28, 2012

Rewiring the Perfumer’s Brain

Acquired motor skills enlarge the brain areas that control them. For example, the motor regions that activate fine movements of the left hand are larger than average in violinists. But what about olfactory expertise? Do professional perfumers have more brain tissue devoted to smelling? A French research team believes the answer is yes.

Led by Chantal Delon-Martin, the team examined MRI scans taken during an earlier study of brain activity during olfactory mental imagery. The brains in question belonged to 14 professional perfumers, 13 perfumery trainees at ISIPCA, and 21 untrained folks (some young, some old) who served as controls.

Using the latest statistical and data processing techniques, Delon-Martin and colleagues found that perfumers and trainees have more gray matter in areas associated with odor perception, namely the gyrus rectus and the medial orbital gyrus (GR/MOG). (For all you neuroanatomy fans, the GR/MOG borders the olfactory sulcus and lies next to the putative secondary olfactory cortex. It is thought to be involved in higher-order cognitive processing of odors.) So it seems that exercising your sense of smell—at the intense professional level, at least—enlarges the relevant portions of your brain.

While it has been known for some time that loss of odor perception is associated with reduced olfactory processing areas in the brain, these new results are the first to appear on the positive side of the ledger.

The researchers also discovered that smelling for a living counteracts the age-related shrinkage normally seen in the GR/MOG brain areas. This is a neat instance of the “use it or lose it” phenomenon and helps explain why age doesn’t seem to slow down many perfumers.

The study discussed here is “Perfumers’ expertise induces structural reorganization in olfactory brain regions,” by Chantal Delon-Martin, Jane Plailly, Pierre Fonlupt, Alexandra Veyrac, and Jean-Pierre Royet, published in Neuroimage, 68:55-62, 2012.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas to All

And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight-
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Disability or Hostile Workplace?

From TheSmokingGun:
A federal employee was formally reprimanded this month for excessive workplace flatulence, a sanction that was delivered to him in a five-page letter that actually included a log of representative dates and times when he was recorded “releasing the awful and unpleasant odor” in his Baltimore office [of the Social Security Administration]. 
According to the letter of reprimand—which is the least severe administrative sanction that can be levied against a federal worker—the man was first spoken to about his flatulence during a May 18 “performance discussion” with his supervisor. He was informed that fellow employees had complained about his flatulence, and that it was “the reason none of them were willing to assist you with your work.” 
After stating that, “It is my belief that you can control this condition,” the author of the reprimand letter then noted, “The following dates show the time of your flatulence.” What followed was a log listing 17 separate dates (and 60 specific times) on which the employee passed gas. For example, the man’s September 19 output included nine instances of flatulence, beginning at 9:45 AM and concluding at 4:30 PM.
Exit questions:

Does Obamacare pay for Beano® and Lactaid®?

Has HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued regulations on what constitutes excessive flatulence?

How soon before OSHA formalizes an indoor air quality standard for workplace flatulence?

UPDATE January 11, 2013
The guy gets a pass: reprimand withdrawn.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Biosolids in the Punch Bowl

Mullumbimby, NSW

There’s been a disgusting stink hovering over the delightfully named Australian town of Mullumbimby, south of Brisbane in New South Wales. After being swamped with complaints, the shire council investigated and finally got to the . . . uh . . . bottom of the problem.

Turns out it was man-made, in more than one sense of the word. The stench—variously described as pig manure, farm yard, or animal enclosure—was the result of biosolids from the sewage treatment plant being spread on local properties as fertilizer. [No shit?—Ed.]

But not to worry.
“The work has been since been stopped due to weather conditions,” [Byron Shire Council acting general manager Mr. Phil] Warner said.
The weather conditions—of course. That’s the only possible explanation why a county’s worth of processed poop would smell bad. When will greens own up to the fact that their shit does stink?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Culture Clash: Sustainable Ambergris Substitute?

The headline from PR-centric ScienceDaily sounds oh-so-eco-friendly:
Sustainable Way to Make a Prized Fragrance Ingredient
But there’s less here than meets the nose. Sure, the prized fragrance ingredient is ambergris, which perfume houses won’t touch with a ten-foot harpoon, even when it’s scavenged on a beach. The substitute—an approximation, really—is Ambrox, originally synthesized by Firmenich from sclareol, a material found in tiny amounts in clary sage.

The news is that Firmenich researchers have found a way to produce sclareol in bigger quantities.

Sustainable, hooray!

They do it with some cool genetic engineering—inserting clary sage enzymes into E. coli bacteria, which then pump out the sclareol.

Genetic engineering, hooray!

Oh, wait . . . that means they’re using genetically modified organisms. Boo, hiss!

But Ambrox is saving the whales. Hooray!

But it’s a synthetic chemical. Hiss!

I just love it when eco doctrines collide. Good, clean entertainment. Pass the popcorn.

Who wants synthetic butter flavor on theirs?

The study discussed here is “ Toward a biosynthetic route to sclareol and amber odorants,” by Michel Schalk, Laurence Pastore, Marco A. Mirata, Samretthy Khim, Marina Schouwey, Fabienne Deguerry, Virginia Pineda, Letizia Rocci, and Laurent Daviet, published in Journal of the American Chemical Society, 134:18900-189003, 2012.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Science Friday and Shopping Saturday

I had a pleasant time last night at the holiday party thrown for NPR Science Friday guests by Ira Flatow and his staff. Lots of people there had been on the show to talk about their books, and it occurred to me that these would make great choices for any science and technology types on your holiday gift list.

My pal Stuart Firestein works on the molecular biology of olfaction at Columbia University, where he teaches a popular course on ignorance. It’s about what motivates scientists at a personal level—namely, curiosity about the unknown and striking out into uncharted waters. Now he’s written a short, very readable book called Ignorance: How It Drives Science. It’s the best account I’ve ever read of how science actually gets done—through hunches, false leads, serendipity, and following unexpected leads down an entirely different path. Stuart was on Science Friday back in June.

Diana Reiss teaches psychology at Hunter College. Her research into self-recognition in animals led to her work with bottle-nose dolphins. The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives is about her work with these remarkable animals. She also talked about it on Science Friday.

Christopher Bonanos writes at New York magazine. He showed up at the party with a vintage 1963 Polaroid camera around his neck. He’d been a guest on Science Friday earlier in the day to talk about Instant: The Story of Polaroid. It's about Edwin Land, the scientist and co-founder of Polaroid, and the rise and fall of his brilliant company. Land was truly an American original. Polaroid photography continues to have a cult following, especially among artistically inclined younger types.

Note that if you order at Amazon through the links on this page, you add a few pennies to the FirstNerve beer fund at no additional cost to you. Thanks and enjoy your shopping!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

ISDP: Presenting the Winner of the 2012 Norman Bates Award™

We have a lot of new readers lately, drawn by our high-falutin’ posts on olfactory art and scent marketing. After seeing this post pop up on their newsfeeds, they may be asking themselves, “Well, how did I get here?”

No worries! You are looking at the latest edition of FirstNerve’s most popular recurring feature bar none. Some readers like it because it appeals to their inner Uncle Fester, others because it proves their olfactological mettle, much like eating stinky tofu.

This month we have only a single incident to report, but it’s a doozy and it introduces our final Norman Bates Award™ nominee of 2012. After which, we review the entire roster and select this year’s winner.

November’s incident is from Oceanside, California, and involves 69-year-old Frederick Hengel and his wife who lived in a small home on North Ditmar Street.
Erick Chavez, 21, who lives next door, told the [San Diego Union-Tribune] newspaper he started smelling something rotten about a week and a half ago. He and other neighbors described the couple as hostile. 
“There’s no other word for it,” Chavez said. About six months ago, Chavez said the woman began wandering around the neighborhood with a butcher knife and exposing herself with her pants around her ankles. That went on for about a month, he said. The woman would preach, as well, he said, saying such things as, “God will smite you.” 
One neighbor said Hengel had worked at Home Depot, and he sold her a ceiling fan. She said Hengel would sometimes wear blouses and makeup, including hot pink lipstick, and she saw him dressed in women’s clothing at a grocery store. Justin Kaufman, 27, another neighbor, said he saw Hengel this past summer wearing a floor-length purple dress, pearl necklace with pearl earrings, and carrying a fancy purse.
Here’s a screen capture of Mr. Hengel dressed to impress.

The gruesome details of what the police found are here. Mr. Hengel has pleaded not guilty to murder charges.

The 2012 Norman Bates Award™

This prize is given to the person or persons who has shown exemplary, if bizarre, olfactory fortitude in living in close quarters with a dead body. This year’s nominees are:
Peter Coscia, of Seligman, Missouri, for continuing to live in his house after his 28-year-old daughter starved herself to death in her bedroom.

Christopher Aguilar, age 25, of Tucson, Arizona, for living with the decaying body of his 47-year-old mother, while telling the building manager the foul smell was coming from a nearby sewer.

Sixteen-year-old Kit Darrant of Miami, Florida, the youngest-ever nominee, for choking and stabbing his mother to death, living in the home for another eight days, and having friends over to party as her body decomposed in another room.

James M. O’Brien, age 68, of Knoxville, Tennessee, who lived for nearly a week in another man’s apartment after the occupant had died of natural causes.

The pair of adult, developmentally disabled sisters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who lived with their mother’s decomposing body for approximately two weeks until neighbors complained of a foul smell.

The elderly widow in the Rowland Heights area of Los Angeles, who left her husband’s body in the downstairs bathroom of their home for eight months until a visitor noticed the odor.

Linda Lou Chase, age 72, of Lansing, Michigan, who lived for over a year with the mummified remains of her boyfriend while collecting more than $28,000 in his pension and retirement checks.

Frederick Hengel, age 69, of Oceanside, California, for living for two weeks with the remains of his 74-year-old wife whom he is accused of murdering and eventually dismembering and boiling.

Christopher Aguilar

Kit Darrant

James O'Brien

Linda Lou Chase

Frederick Hengel

It is difficult to select a winner from such a highly competitive field. We begin by dismissing the Pittsburgh sisters and the Los Angeles widow on the grounds that they were mentally overwhelmed by circumstances. Mr. O’Brien, who is otherwise homeless, we dismiss because the foul smelling remains were those of a mere acquaintance. Mr. Coscia’s case, although it may involve some florid family psychopathology, did not involve deliberate criminality.

That leaves us with four candidates. Between Mr. Aguilar, whose mother died of natural causes, and Mr. Darrant, who allegedly killed his mother, we have to give the nod to Mr. Darrant. The potential criminality of Ms. Chase, who fraudulently cashed her deceased boyfriend’s pension checks as his remains sat upright in an easy chair in her parlor, pales beside that of Mr. Hengel, who allegedly murdered his wife and cooked her decomposing remains.

That narrows it down to Mr. Darrant and Mr. Hengel. The brazenness of Mr. Darrant’s behavior, along with the innovative touch of using deodorizers and scented laundry detergent to hide the scent of decomposition of his mother’s corpse, are strong arguments in his favor. On the other hand, Mr. Hengel before the demise of his wife and his attempted stovetop reduction of her remains, was a truly colorful character, parading around the neighborhood in full drag, apparently on days when his wife was not standing on the corner with a butcher knife, pants around her ankles, screaming about religious topics. Yet, colorful as it may be, the Hengels’ behavior was par for course in California—it wasn’t until a foul odor became noticeable in Mrs. Hengel’s prolonged absence that neighbors decided things were uncool.

And so, after due deliberation, we award the 2012 Norman Bates Award™ to Kit Darrant.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Exactly How Does Scent Encourage Shopping?

By now there are lots of credible studies showing that ambient scent alters behavior. There’s the original Cinnabon Effect study and its recent extension, and some nice work on perfume wearing and spontaneous helpfulness.

In the “Zombies at the Mall” chapter of What the Nose Knows, I took a look at the scientific literature on scent marketing. There too, credible research shows that scent can increase dollars spent as well as boost positive perception of the mall, the stores, and their products.

A common theme in these studies is that the effects on behavior in general, and consumer purchasing in particular, are driven by changes in mood. Thus, the sweet, warm, delicious smell of fresh-from-the-oven Cinnabon buns put people in a more positive mood and makes them more likely to respond to a request for assistance.

This is a plausible but rather limited explanation. Limited because it fails to explain the differential effectiveness of scents that are equally pleasant, and that should therefore produce equal improvements in mood. For example, business school professor Eric Spangenberg found that a masculine scent increased sales of men’s clothing, and decreased sales of women’s items. The reverse effect was found for a feminine scent.

Clearly, something more than emotion is involved. (This is an ongoing theme of WTNK: psychologists for years have overemphasized the role of emotion in odor perception. More and more research shows that people respond to smell cognitively—that is, they compare, contrast, evaluate, interpret and judge.)

The best alternative explanation involves “congruency.” The idea here is that a smell that “goes with” the merchandise on display will enhance consumer perceptions of the goods and increase sales, while a mismatched scent will have no effect, or even decrease sales. Congruency explains Spangenberg’s shopping results much more satisfactorily than does an appeal to mood.

Now the man himself—Spangenberg along with three colleagues—has found perhaps a better explanation. The new idea is “processing fluency,” technically defined as “the experienced ease of processing a stimulus.” Studies find that labels, logos and ads that are more easily processed, i.e., which are more “fluent,” have a bigger impact on consumer perception and sales. Spangenberg’s newly published study pushes the concept into the olfactory realm.

The researchers first came up with a pair of smells—orange, and basil-orange-green tea—that differed in complexity, but were alike in all other key respects. These two scents, along with a no-odor control condition, were diffused into a Swiss home goods store on different days. Random shoppers who had been in the store at least five minutes and who had bought something were given a brief questionnaire.

The bottom line: shoppers in the simple scent condition spent 10 Swiss francs (roughly $10) or more than did shoppers in the complex scent or no-odor conditions. This is a substantial effect and it happened largely without the shoppers being aware of the scent.

Back in the lab, Spangenberg’s group did several follow-up experiments to pin down the precise nature of the effects. The simple odor out-performed the complex and no-odor conditions when it came to a cognitive task involving anagrams. Simple odor results in more anagrams completed and at a faster rate. Finally, the results of the field study were confirmed in a simulated shopping experiment. The authors conclude:
Our results also show that, contrary to conclusions drawn by many retailers attempting to implement prior olfactory research findings, not just any pleasant scent will work to a firm’s benefit. The ambient scents used for this research were equally pleasant, but produced remarkably different outcomes based on scent complexity.
We seem at last to be getting away from the Land of Mood and into a zone where we can use sensory analysis to engineer more effective fragrances for scent marketing.

The study discussed here is “The power of simplicity: Processing fluency and the effects of olfactory cues on retail sales,” by Andreas Herrmann, Manja Zidanseka, David E. Sprotta, & Eric R. Spangenberg, published online in Journal of Retailing, September 17, 2012.

Friday, December 7, 2012

FirstNerve Review: The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012

The Scent Stripped Bare by Its Curator, Even.

The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012 occupies the fourth floor of the Museum of Arts & Design on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. The main exhibit is a large room with a white wall. Along the wall are twelve smooth indentations that from a distance look as if a giant pressed his thumb into putty. On closer inspection each has a narrow cleft at the bottom. The overall effect is vaguely gynecological. Lean into the shallow, curved opening and you notice a hole in the bottom. A sly reference to Duchamp’s urinal? A hiss and a low rumble of plumbing announce a scented air stream rushing to meet your face. It’s MAD’s version of a swirlie.

An explanatory text appears now and then beside the opening, backlit in white letters. The text is reproduced in a pamphlet that observes all the proper forms of an art show catalog: artist’s name, the work’s title, its date and provenance, and a brief description of its significance. Except that the twelve art works in question are perfumes. And therein lies the central conceit of The Art of Scent: its whiny, foot-stomping, insistence that perfume is Art.

A side room offers the same dozen perfumes in a more traditional medium—alcoholic solution. They are arranged in clear covered platters on a clear Plexiglas table surrounded by clear plastic stools. Labeled blotters are provided for dipping and sampling. (Unusually shaped, these are the capellini of blotters; they bring to mind the phrase pencil-dick bug f***er.)

Along the wall of the side room are five stations that dispense scent-sample cards from biomorphic protrusions on the wall. (They are suggestively labial in a Videodrome sort of way.) The samples consist of four accords from, and the complete formula of, Lancôme’s Trésor. Here a visitor actually gets to look under the hood and see how perfumer Sophia Grojsman built the fragrance. The accords (incorrectly equated with “mods” in the accompanying text) by themselves are stark and seemingly unrelated; their integration in the finished fragrance is remarkable, and vividly illustrates the complicated, combinatorial magic of perfumery.

The liquid versions don’t always match those wafting out of the wall, which were adapted to suit the dry delivery system. In particular, the wall’s Drakkar Noir was coming apart—a grassy note stood out and the impression was not at all like the (very familiar) commercial product.

The final piece of the exhibit is an iPad app that lets visitors pair an abstract descriptor with a realistic one to describe each perfume, and then projects a word cloud representation of the current tally onto a screen at the end of the room. Pointless but harmless fun.

All this spritz and tell has one objective: to sell the notion that perfume is Art. In a world where a crucifix in jar of urine and a sliced-up sheep in formaldehyde are considered masterpieces, this would seem to be a fairly low bar to clear. Yet, the exhibit huffs and puffs to make its point.

For example, the words “perfume” and “perfumer” appear nowhere in the catalog. This ostentatious omission is part of curator Chandler Burr’s puerile attempt to win the argument by recasting its terms. He talks about olfactory art, not perfume. He talks about scent creators and scent artists, not perfumers. He talks about patrons, not perfume brands. He slings a lot of hash about “aesthetic visions,” “abstraction,” “ornamentation,” “minimalism,” “hyper-realism,” “diaphanous quality of light,” and “21st century sensibilities,” but nothing about top notes or fragrance families. The idea seems to be that if he can talk about perfume in purely artistic terms, it must be Art. But calling it so doesn’t make it so.

Beyond sheer assertion, Burr’s only specific claim is that olfactory Art only became possible with the invention of synthetic fragrance chemicals in the late 19th century:
By freeing olfactory artists from an exclusively natural palette, they [synesthetics] turned scent into an artistic medium.
So if you didn’t have coumarin or vanillin on the shelf, you weren’t doing Art. Tough beans for Giovanni Maria Farina, who created Eau de Cologne in 1708, or Jean-Louis Fargeon, perfumer to Marie-Antoinette. And whatever ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian perfumers were doing, it wasn’t Art.

The odd thing about Burr’s claim is that it ignores the difference between a flower and a perfume oil. A pile of rose petals on the floor of a barn in Bulgaria does not a natural palette make. Petals must be distilled, extracted, de-waxed, filtered, and blended before the perfumer can reach for a bottle of rose oil. The same goes for the bales of patchouli, the crates of oakmoss, and so on. Once processed, these materials have an amplified, focused smell that, while it may be reminiscent of the source, is entirely novel, man-made, and not found in nature.

What’s missing from The Art of Scent, with its clean white walls and transparent furniture, are the messy, colorful worlds of commerce and fashion—the reason these fragrances exist in the first place. Consumers don’t buy Drakkar Noir to hang on the wall or admire on the mantelpiece. Yet in Burr World, Pierre Wargnye is an artist who woke up one morning in the mood to “violate” the “strict line between ‘fine’ and ‘functional’ fragrances.” The Muse told him to start with a shitload of synthetic dihydromyrcenol and the result was Art. In real life, the Guy Laroche people circulated a fragrance brief and Pierre Wargnye worked on it because that’s what his employer, a large, publicly traded New York corporation, asked him to do. And it became the “most significant and influential scent” of the 1980s because a lot of guys bought it. To wear. On their skin. To attract chicks.

You can stick your head in the wall all day long, but you won’t learn that at MAD. The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012 smells okay, but it’s a history deprivation chamber.

P.S. As a gesture to loyal FN fans, we brought the BurrOMeter out of storage, fired it up, and aimed the sensors at the show catalog.

Name Drops: 17

Aimé Guerlain
Ernest Beaux
Francis Fabron
Bernard Chant
Carol Phillips
Pierre Wargnye
Olivier Cresp
Jacques Cavallier
Annie Buzantian
Alberto Morillas
Jean-Claude Ellena
Carlos Benaim
Max Gavarry
Clément Gavarry
Daniela Andrier
Issey Miyake
Miuccia Prada

Bonus Points:

Perfumers: 14
French: 10
Designers: 2
Moguls: 1

Jean-Claude Ellena Deluxe Triple Bonus Points®: 3

Autre Merde Française Bonus Points: 4

Eiffel Tower
traditional French floral
nineteenth-century Paris
nineteenth-century French scent making

Le Capitaine Louis Renault Bonus Points: 4

shocked by

Total BurrOmeter reading for The Art of Scent: 55 milliburrs

Outlook: Clear skies, clear furniture. Smooth sailing: no friction, no traction.

The Zen of Drudge

Nuancing the news.