Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Olfactory Art Take 2: Smell Graffiti

Urban Prankster spotlights artist Mitchell Heinrich who is playing around with “smell graffiti” in Vienna. Spray bottle + scent + urban environment is pretty much all you need to know.

Mr. Heinrich’s claim of creating “a new form of street art” generates some flack from commenters. True, he is a bit pretentious. At my high school, at least, the kids with the stink bombs didn’t style themselves as artists.

Then there’s this:
As part of this project I’ve been sourcing natural scents like dirt and freshly cut grass and spraying them in urbanized public spaces where these scents are never encountered.
C’mon, Mitch. Enough with the eco-piety. Are you a graffiti artist or Glenda the Good Witch? Pour something subversive into your spray bottle!

Jack Daniels at an AA meeting. Pizza at a French restaurant. BO on the yoga mat.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Scent of the Virtual Bong

A standard laboratory method in addiction research is the “cue exposure” experiment. People are shown pictures of drug paraphernalia or read descriptions of drug use. Addicts respond more strongly to these scenarios than to neutral photos and descriptions because their cravings have become conditioned to drug-related cues such as needles or lines of coke. Cue exposure data have been used to argue that heavy marijuana use creates psychophysiological dependency. It’s also been proposed that cue reactivity “may provide treatment professionals with valuable information on tailoring therapy sessions” for potheads looking to kick the habit.

In an effort to ramp up the realism of the cue exposure paradigm, a group of social workers has teamed up with a company in Decatur, Georgia that manufactures virtual reality devices. The result is the Virtual Reality Cannabis Cue Reactivity Assessment or VR-CCRAS. The system “integrates a visual head mounted display, tracking device, and directional audio, vibrotactile, and olfactory stimuli.” The smells are courtesy of the Envirodine Studios Scent Palette™ system. The results of their first study—comparing two neutral virtual environments with two pot-related ones—have just been published.

So what sort of experience does the VR-CCRAS provide? Well, the two neutral conditions consist of boring rooms with nature films playing on wall-panel TV screens while vanilla scent wafts past. Snore. The drug-cue conditions are a little juicier. One is a room full of drug paraphernalia. The other is a “party room”:
The party environment provided exposure to complex social cues. The party consisted of indoor and outdoor areas of a home in which people were eating, drinking, and smoking cannabis on a patio. During the party, participants observed a person rolling a joint. Participants were encouraged to interact with the virtual environment. An offer to smoke a joint or “take a hit” on a marijuana pipe (based on the participants preferred method of smoking) was initiated by other party guests. Olfactory cannabis cues were presented when participants encountered people smoking cannabis at a table with pizza and popcorn.

The VR-CCRAS system provided smells of “raw cannabis (buds), cannabis smoke, pizza, incense-frankincense, beer, popcorn, and outdoors (pine/dirt).”


Not surprisingly, under these conditions heavy pot smokers have higher craving levels than in the neutral, nature-film room. And by “heavy” I mean twenty adults who smoked an average of 3.5 times a day and for 25.8 out of the past 30 days.


Where this all leads is a little unclear. The study, published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, didn’t compare these heavy smokers to occasional users or non-users. The craving measure consisted of a single self-rating—no independent physiological measures such as heart rate were obtained. But the party room helmet sounds like a blast, even though I’m not sure it will be on Nintendo Wii any time soon.

Oh, and thanks to all you American taxpayers for making it possible through the National Institute of Drug Abuse Small Business Innovative Research Awards program. The tab: $144,526.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

WTNK: Now in Korean

My copies of the Korean translation of What the Nose Knows just arrived. I don’t understand a word of it, but the layout and production values are superb. (Why don’t American paperbacks have folded cover-flaps and colored end pages?) It’s available here and here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pacific Palisades--pee yew!

Everyone out of the water!

UPDATE September 25, 2009

Sheesh. Now it’s Santa Monica’s turn to “go with the flow”.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Against the Grain: The Beautiful Mutation Behind Aromatic Rice

I ate rice when I was a kid but it was boring—mushy and bland. Perhaps this is why Uncle Ben remains a characterless cipher to me while I harbor good associations to Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima. Later, in the course of experimenting with more exotic cuisines in Berkeley, I discovered the aromatic joys of rice: the wonderful scent of the basmati and jasmine varieties.

Fragrance is one of the most highly prized traits in cultivated rice and naturally it’s been the subject of scientific inquiry. More than one hundred volatile molecules have been identified in various cultivars—the one most responsible for the scent of perfumed rice is 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline or 2AP. This molecule is found in all parts of the plant but is obviously most desirable in the edible grains.

How and why rice came to be fragrant is a tricky question and not just because of the intense issues of national and ethnic pride it raises. As a domesticated plant, rice has an extremely complex evolutionary history. Plant geneticists have identified two major varietal groups: Indica and Japonica. The two subpopulations of Indica include the jasmine scented cultivars, while the three subpopulations of Japonica include the Basmati types.

Classical genetic studies back in the 1930s and 1940s established that the gene controlling fragrance is located on chromosome 8. Modern techniques in the 1990s pinned things down more precisely to a gene called BADH2 which makes an enzyme called betaine aldehyde dehydrogenase. This enzyme oxidizes (which in this context means destroys) the precursor molecule of 2AP, the chief perfume molecule in rice.

It turns out that several minor mutations in the BADH2 gene render it nonfunctional. This leaves more 2AP precursor molecules hanging about, which means more 2AP is created, which means the rice is more fragrant. In other words, perfumed rice is the result of a genetic mutation.

So how did the original mutation arise and spread? There are two possibilities. Early farmers could have discovered the mutated strain in the wild and then domesticated it, or the mutation could have occurred in a variety of rice already under domestic cultivation.

In a new study, scientists at Cornell University and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines examined 280 genetically and geographically diverse rice strains from all over Asia. Their conclusion: the badh2.1 allele responsible for fragrance is a mutation that occurred in Japonica type rice after it had already been domesticated. The genetic data suggest “strong positive selection.” 

In other words, people were already farming Japonica type rice (the forerunner of Basmati) when a random, fragrance-generating mutation popped up. Liking what they smelled, the planters selectively bred these plants for scent. The badh2.1 allele traveled along as people migrated, and was accidentally or deliberated interbred with other, previously unscented varieties. And so today we have the great range of aromatic types.

Cool, eh? And now it’s time for a great big plate of biryani.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Bad Smells of Toni Morrison

Conventional wisdom holds that our odor vocabulary is sparse and that it’s difficult to use words to describe smells. I dispute both notions in What the Nose Knows, in part by taking a close look at authors who have successfully incorporated smell into their works.

Among them is William Faulkner who made heavily symbolic use of scent in The Unvanquished and The Sound and the Fury. Another is Virginia Woolf whose Flush: A Biography is the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, told from the dog’s point of view. Woolf’s smell-laden set pieces—of Florence, or Wimpole Street in London—are vivid and a delight to read.

Some authors, of course, don’t make much use of smell. A few try and fail. One of the most spectacular flameouts is Toni Morrison, the winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature and the author of Beloved, a novel that won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1988.

Odor is mentioned three dozen times in this three hundred page book, mostly in isolation and most often as either sweet smells or stenches. It’s the bad smells that stand out because they are very bad indeed: the “stench of rotten roses,” “gusts of sour air,” “the smell of burning hair,” “the stench of offal.”

Malodor also dominates the book’s only extended smellscape:
It was three in the afternoon on a Friday so wet and hot Cincinnati’s stench had traveled to the country: from the canal, from hanging meat and things rotting in jars; from small animals dead in the field, town sewers and factories. The stench, the heat, the moisture—trust the devil to make his presence known.
Dramatic as it is this passage just doesn’t ring true. Sewers and factories are clichéd sources of stink. But “hanging meat”? Meat hangs in a butcher shop; how long would a butcher shop with rotten meat stay in business? Perhaps Morrison means the stench of a slaughterhouse, full of blood, feces, and urine. Then why doesn’t she say so?

How about the “things rotting in jars”? What things? Who keeps jars full of rotting stuff? Besides, if the jars have lids, there’s not much to smell. The image is impenetrable and leaves the reader frustrated. And since when does the smell of a small dead animal travel all the way from the countryside to the city? That must be one helluva stinky dead gopher.

Nearly every smell observed in Beloved feels inauthentic. A character remembers “the smell of leaves simmering in the sun.” Leaves can certainly shimmer in the sun. They can bake in the sun. But simmer? When, even metaphorically, does the sun cook leaves in liquid? And what would simmering leaves smell like? Elsewhere, Morrison writes “The odor of burning leaves was brilliant.” Burning leaves can smell pungent, acrid, sharp, or dark; but brilliant?

One gets the sense that the author of Beloved is not at ease with smell and has little grasp of how it affects other people. Take for example the scene where a character is offered a steaming hot piece of fried eel. Because she is sick and injured the character finds “it was an effort to reach for, more to smell, impossible to eat.” We all know from experience that it’s an effort to eat when we’re sick. But it is ever an effort just to smell food? Does smelling require more physical effort than reaching? The only effort on display in this passage is Toni Morrison straining for effect.

In setting another scene, Morrison writes:
The scent of their disapproval lay heavy in the air. [ . . . ] Nothing seemed amiss—yet the smell of disapproval was sharp.
Well, which is it? Is the smell of disapproval heavy or sharp? In years of consumer research I’ve heard odors described as heavy and dull, or bright and sharp. But heavy and sharp? Never.
. . . suddenly, behind the disapproving odor, way way back behind it, she smelled another thing. Dark and coming. Something she couldn’t get at because the other odor hid it.
Who experiences an approaching odor as being located “behind” an odor that’s already there? No one. Morrison’s visual-spatial analogy is off kilter and reveals just how far removed she is from normal olfactory experience.

Assuming for the sake of argument that she isn’t simply a lousy writer, what is Morrison up to in Beloved? She uses the smell of burning hair and burning flesh to drive home the horrors of slavery. Her smells don’t have to be realistic: they are a brutalist tactic in her moralizing campaign, part of what critic Charles Taylor calls her “hectoring lecture on the bloodiest sin on America’s racist soul.”

Taylor also criticizes her “faux-Faulknerian interior prose.” His comment stings because Morrison’s master’s thesis at Cornell was on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Evidently their deft and innovative use of scent made little impression on her own work. It’s possible that Morrison’s simmering leaves and small dead animals are a failed homage to their achievement. But I doubt it. Morrison writes about scent so falsely and so unconvincingly that she sets the mark for bad olfactory prose.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Good Night and Good Luck

Take your olfactory news from NPR with a grain of salt.

A month after KNAU-FM reporter Daniel Kraker got confused about whether Ponderosa pine smells like vanilla—no, wait, wait, don’t tell me, it’s butterscotch, no, coconut! oh wait, that’s Jeffrey pine—along comes Laura Ziegler at NPR affiliate KCUR in Kansas City. 

Like Kraker, she’s been in radio for a while—she produced Weekend Edition with Scott Simon for many years—and has won not one, not two, but three Edward R. Murrow awards.

Here’s the opening of Ziegler’s report from Fairway, Kansas:
Don Sifers can recall everything about the first time he encountered a latrine. He says it was on a hot summer day at camp: “Camp Cobble outside Benedict, Kansas. In June. It was 95 degrees. It was the worst smell I ever smelled. It was awful.”

Standing in his garage, in a button-down, pin-stripe shirt and tie, Sifers goes over a small-scale model of what he’s calling The Mountain Air Processor.

It’s a propane-powered converter designed to burn off the odor from a latrine’s methane gasses. He won’t give many details. A patent is pending. He’s says he’s been told he has something unique.
Uh oh. Here at FirstNerve we can smell bullshit over the airwaves. But the aroma doesn’t register with Ms. Ziegler, a Vassar graduate with a degree in anthropology. (What, don’t look at us like that. Some of our best friends are Vassar graduates. Seriously.) 

Ziegler doesn’t seem to know that methane (CH4) is odorless. All things considered, Mr. Sifers sounds like a poor chemist too.

So why does gas from an unlit stove burner stink? Because a noxious mix of sulfur-containing molecules called mercaptans is added to it as a warning agent.

If NPR isn’t careful these olfactory faux pas could become the talk of the nation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Quick Sniffs

Fragrance fight!

John Derbyshire’s sophisticated nostrils twitch with eldritch delight at the thought of an H.P. Lovecraft perfume

Mark Ecko . . . new fragrance . . . yadda yadda.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Is Olfactory Art Possible? Denis Dutton Says No

I spend a good bit of time in What the Nose Knows examining the nature of olfactory genius—the ways in which artists, poets, writers, and musicians succeed in weaving scent into their creative works of art. So I was intrigued to find that philosopher Denis Dutton had tackled the sense of smell in his new book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.

Dutton teaches the philosophy of art and is the founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily. Somewhat unexpectedly given this background his book is a serious attempt to explain the human capacity and compulsion to create art on the basis of Darwinian evolution.

I won’t go into the outlines of his overall argument here. (Links to many reviews of the book can be found here.) My goal isn’t to evaluate how well Dutton makes the Darwinian case for an art instinct. Instead I want to examine the few pages he devotes to the sense of smell as a basis for potential art forms (he goes on to treat sound in a similar way but with a much more favorable conclusion). 

Dutton notes that olfactory art is far less developed than what he calls the big three—visual arts, language arts, and music/dance. He then tees off on a frequently offered reason for this lack of development, namely that there is a prejudice against smell “that keeps us from taking it seriously as an art form.” How is this possible, he asks, when perfume is a highly sought-after product and when the spices and flavors of particular cuisines are the subject of endless discussion and innovation? So what if the ancient philosophers ranked smell as one of the “lower” senses? Aristotle’s opinion doesn’t carry much weight with fans of Britney Spears Curious.

I’m with Dutton on this one. Philosophers have droned on for centuries about the relative rank of the senses and I thought I’d have to include it in my book. But after struggling to find an plausible scientific or cultural angle I said to hell with it.

Dutton next demolishes the excuse that olfactory art gets no respect because the sense of smell is non-cognitive and therefore not easily made the subject of “serious” theories of art. I was ready to stand up and start cheering when I read this because it’s a favorite theme of mine. Contrary to conventional wisdom, especially among psychologists who should know better, olfaction is very cognitive. It requires attention, memory, comparison, naming, and judgment. There is, after all, a thinking brain behind the smelling nose.

Dutton needlessly concedes that the human sense of smell is less sensitive than that of animals; here he’s simply not up to date on recent findings of human/animal parity in odor detection.

As for the positive case why smell is inherently unsuitable for artistic purposes, Dutton lets the philosopher Monroe Beardsley carry the ball: 
[Beardsley] claims that the fundamental problem with smells as an artistic medium is that, unlike musical tones, they cannot be ordered by “intrinsic relations” among themselves. With musical pitches, one note is always higher or lower than another, they stand in scales with octaves, and they can be arranged in serial order with regard to loudness or duration. Smell defies any such rational arrangement.
Beardsley goes on to imagine the difficulties in designing a scent organ for playing smells like music. How would one arrange the keyboard? How would one compose smell-music when there is no order or definition to the aesthetic elements (scent notes) one has to work with?
This, and not the view that smell and taste are “lower senses” compared with sight and hearing, seems to explain the absence of taste-symphonies and smell-sonatas.
Dutton gives full credit to the creative genius of perfumers and chefs. He notes the universal pleasure we take in well-designed fragrances and dishes. Yet, he says, 
few are willing to class the best culinary or oenological experiences alongside the Iliad or Guernica—even if experiences of meals or fine wine are some of the most prized and pleasurable moments life can offer.
Why is this? Dutton believe that the aesthetic elements of smell resist the structures—melodies, chords, rhymes, rhythms, narrative themes—that make art in other modalities so compelling. And further, despite its ability to evoke vivid memories, smell fails “to express or evoke emotions beyond those of personal association and nostalgia.”
Any person may associate a smell with other experiences or feelings (burning incense with one’s religion, for instance). But smells are oddly without the intrinsic emotions of the sort that seem to inhere in the structures of music or the expressively colored forms of painting.
Here’s where I take issue with Dutton. For many animals, particular smells come with a built-in (evolved) meaning. Smell a tiger—flee! Smell ripe fruit—eat! In contrast, humans assign meaning to smells; it is this ability to reprogram the meaning of molecule that makes smell so involving and—contrary to Dutton’s conclusion—potentially artistic.

As for the lack of intrinsic emotions, Dutton is simply off base. My colleagues and I have shown experimentally that smells have colors, auditory pitch, and physical texture. In my commercial work with consumer panels, I routinely find that fragrances have specific mood profiles. These intrinsic features are there—whether they’ve been used effectively by olfactory artists is another matter. Dutton thinks that if olfactory art were going to happen, it would have happened by now. I'm more optimistic; it could still happen.

Despite my disagreement with some of the points he raises, I think Dutton in these few, brief pages has done us all a favor by clarifying the issues and redefining the debate about whether smell can be art.

I Smell Dead People: Western Edition

It’s the end of summer and perhaps the cooler weather is why this month’s edition of ISDP is much shorter than the last. Still, if you’re an aficionado of the Dark Side of olfaction there’s plenty to explore. If you want happy happy nice scents then go watch the goddamn Food Channel.

We begin with this puzzling headline from the Las Vegas Sun:

Foul play not suspected after body found in trunk
Metro Police say a body found in the trunk of a Ford Taurus on Wednesday near McCarran International Airport is that of an adult female and no foul play is suspected.

Officers arrived about 3:55 p.m. Wednesday . . . after a security guard detected a strong odor from the car.
Apparently what happens in the trunk stays in the trunk . . .

On August 22, a man in South Austin, Texas, walked into a transient camp in a wooded area in his neighborhood “to investigate a bad smell.” He found a dead body.

After days of searching by friends and authorities, the body of a missing man in St. Anthony, Idaho, was discovered on September 4 in a canal just outside of town.
He was found tangled in a fence, which runs in the middle of the canal, by an employee with Summit Truss who was picking apples and noticed a foul smell.
In San Mateo, California, last week the usual sequence of events was turned on its head: a body started to smell only after it arrived in the morgue.
The San Mateo Fire Department received a call from workers at the San Mateo Medical Center morgue at about 11 a.m. Thursday, saying a body they were working on started emitting an unusual foul odor when they opened it up.

A representative from San Mateo Fire Department said an acetone-type of odor came from the body during the exam. It seems the patient, who died at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Redwood City, had ingested the colorless flammable liquid . . .
Two lab technicians and a coroner’s clerk suffered headaches and light-headedness from the fumes.

According to Canwest New Service reporter David Wylie, scientists at Penn State are working on an electronic nose they hope will replace cadaver dogs.
Sarah Jones, a forensic science graduate student who’s collaborating on the project, said a nose for death could also help crime scene investigators by pinpointing the exact time of demise quickly and at the scene. “Every step we take is towards that,” she said.

Researchers euthanized pigs, then placed them in specially designed “odour-collecting units” to study which chemical compounds were released. They found they can already determine time of death as accurately as investigators do by analyzing bugs on bodies.
Cool. That should shave 20 seconds off every episode of CSI.

In the course of the story Wylie invokes the Mechanical Hound from Fahrenheit 451 but his comparison is off the mark: the Hound’s nose was programmed with the scents of 10,000 unique individuals whom it could be directed to hunt down. In contrast, the Penn State cadaver-detecting e-nose will detect aromas common to all human physical decomposition.

Finally, here’s an item I meant to post many moons ago: it’s about necrophoresis—no, not the Norwegian death metal band, the behavior in which social insects remove dead colony members from the nest. Turns out that workers of the Argentine ant Linepithema humile use smell to identify dead nest-mates. That’s not too surprising; but here’s the twist: they don’t use the smell of decay. (They’ll even remove ants who’ve been dead less than an hour—too soon for much decay to happen.) Turns out the critical signal is the lack of a particular scent associated with live ants. If you paint the live-ant scent on a dead ant the workers won’t toss the body out. 

In the hive, it’s more like “I Smell Non-Living Ants”.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Paging Oliver Stone

Juan Tomayo of the Miami Herald reports on Cuba’s use of scent samples and tracking dogs to repress political dissidents. The scent repository is modeled on one kept by the communist East German Stasi. The techniques are described this 2003 article by one Rafael Hernández de la Torre that reads like a parody of a scientific paper. Unfortunately it’s no joke—innocent people may be suffering the horrors of the Castro regime’s prisons thanks to Hernandez’s flimsy pretext of “odorología criminalística.”

Monday, September 7, 2009

First Nerve Review: KyotEau: Bottled Memories by Della Chuang

Della Chuang, a cosmopolitan artistic sprite who flits between Helsinki and New York, once worked a straight design job for Ralph Lauren where she designed the bottles for Polo Blue, Pure Turquoise, and Ralph, along with Tom Ford’s White Patchouli. In her recent incarnation as a writer she has produced two books on the theme of New York Style. Now she has published one of the more unique scent-related books I’ve ever read.

KyotEau: Bottled Memories is an elegantly produced little volume that is at once personal and profound. It deals with the intertwined topics of scent, memory, and the process of design. Yet in keeping with the Zen-centric principles of Japanese aesthetics which inform much of her style Chuang treats these topics with a touch as light as the accidental brush of a kimono sleeve.

The book opens with a section called “The Inspirations,” a series of brief meditations on the mental process of design, and on the values of ambiguity, simplicity, and transience. Among her delicately posed reflections, Chuang considers the tension between creativity and the demands of commercial culture, found in individual perfume projects (design on demand) as well as the industry as a whole (design by committee). She graces her text with quotes from Western artists (Kandinsky and Van Gogh, for example) and Japanese masters such as Rikyu Sen and Hiroshige Ando. The result is an Eastern mode of thought, action and design aligned with Western perspectives.

With English text on the left-hand page and translation into her native Chinese on the right, the book gives a visual impression of hovering weightlessly between different views of the world. Interleaved among the texts are gorgeous color photos and illustrations. Each of Chuang’s short pieces flows spontaneously yet they all lead the reader to one intended destination—her personal philosophy of doing design. She achieves the prose equivalent of the free-flowing brush strokes of Japanese calligraphy.

In the second section, “The Memories of Kyoto,” Chuang introduces us to six artists from that magically beautiful city including a designer, an architect, a painter, a graphic designer, a calligrapher, and a “kimono coordinator.” Speaking in his own voice, each artist recalls specific experiences that illuminate the unique flavor of Japanese aesthetic philosophy found in Kyoto. The section is illustrated with examples of the artists’ work and with the scenes of the city that inspired them.

In “Creating a Perfume,” the last section of the book, all the vignettes and reflections of the previous sections coalesce. The inspirations of Kyoto, the principles of Japanese aesthetics, and Chuang’s personal sensibilities come together to shape the development of a specific perfume, along with its bottle and even its name. She selects the perfumer Christophe Laudamiel—who relates his own Kyoto-based scent epiphany—to create the juice. His reflections on the process of olfactory design are well matched to her own.

Finally, at the back of the book, nestled in a thick cardboard cutout, is a sample dram of KyotEau itself—the olfactory realization of all the preceding pages.

This is a marvelous little book—small in size but large in spirit. In tracing the personal connections between memory and scent, inspiration and creativity, Della Chuang has placed the smells of a particular place and time in a wider context: the making and appreciation of art. Like Zen-master Shiro Tsujimura’s handmade pottery teacups, it’s a one of a kind creation that inspires us to embrace the whole and appreciate the detail at the same time.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Quick Sniffs

Even cooler if true: a scented Jean-Paul Gautier USB drive.

Finally! Cornell students invent a fart detector.

Holiday Inn lobbies and corridors go scented.

Sandra B. steps on Chandler B.’s turf.

Philip Galanes hoses people who might suffer from a metabolic disorder.

And Kim Kardashian is . . . well, write your own punch line.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Your Brain on BO

There’s been a big change in how scientists approach the topic of human body odor. For years it was a chemist’s game—all about analyzing sweat to isolate the stinky molecules. Dermatologists and bacteriologists were also at the table: they identified the metabolic pathways by which skin bacteria transform odorless fresh sweat into heavy duty BO. For the most part research focused on the physical production of BO.

Today the game has changed—now it’s played by sensory scientists who analyze how BO is perceived, what it tells the smeller about the stinker, and how it may affect the smeller’s mental state and behavior. In this research underarm sweat is collected from people in different emotional states—fear, sexual arousal, etc.—and smelled by other people whose responses are observed and analyzed. The focus is on perception and response, the mental not the molecular.

I hope to post about some of these new wave BO studies over the next few weeks.

I’ll start here with an experiment by a multidisciplinary team of German researchers at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel. One of the authors is Bettina Pause who taught at CAU for many years. Since 2005 she has been a Professor of Biological Psychology and Social Psychology at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. I’ve followed her work for years; it is rigorous, inventive, and always interesting.

The title of her new paper grabbed my attention: “Induction of empathy by the smell of anxiety.”

The researchers used a standard cotton-pads-in-the-armpits method to collect sweat from male and female donors. Anxiety sweat was collected from German university students just before and during an oral examination; a passing grade is required for graduation, hence the anxiety. Exercise sweat—the control stimulus—was collected from other students who rode an exercise bike for a similar length of time.

The various types of BO (from men and women, the anxious and the exercising) were delivered to the noses of yet other students as they lay in a MRI magnet that imaged metabolic activity in their brain. These smellers also rated the stimuli for intensity, familiarity and pleasantness. (This quick summary doesn’t do justice to the elegant procedures and cool technologies used by the CAU team. Read the paper for the details.)

The test subjects rated the BO smells as not particularly strong, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, and not particularly familiar. Ratings of anxiety sweat and exercise sweat were statistically indistinguishable. So we’re not talking about knock-your-socks-off levels of BO, but about faint levels of relatively unobjectionable scent. In fact, on half the presentations no odor was consciously detected at all. 

Despite being indistinguishable and barely discernable, the anxiety sweat and exercise sweat triggered responses in many brain areas. When the CAU imaging team subtracted the responses of exercise sweat from those of anxiety sweat, they could locate brain areas selectively activated by the odor of human anxiety. This cluster of brain areas, identified in the image at the top of this post, includes the insula, the precuneus, the fusiform gyrus and the cingulate gyrus. 

Wha-wha-what? OK, this is some hard-core neuroanatomy. Long story short, these are not brain areas usually active during the processing of smells. Instead, according to Pause and colleagues, these areas are active when we decode social emotions from face and body signals, when we think about the emotional state of other people, and when we make empathic judgments that distinguish between self and non-self.

To the CAU team, this means that anxiety BO activates brain resources associated with social emotions and empathy—an interesting and reasonable speculation. But wait, there’s more! They characterize this response as “an automatic contagion of the feeling” of empathy. “In other words,” they conclude, “smelling the feelings of others could be termed an incorporation of the chemical expressions and thus the feelings of others.”

Here I think the CAU team gets a little ahead of its data. Even if the insula, precuneus, etc. really are mediators of social emotional processing, empathy, and so forth, there’s no direct evidence in this experiment that smelling anxiety sweat changes how people evaluate themselves, other people, or empathy-related social situations in general. 

Perhaps having anxiety sweat pumped up your nose unconsciously activates empathy processing centers deep in your old monkey-brain. But does it have any effect at all on how you feel about the nervous guy sitting next to you on the subway? Or how you treat the tense looking person you meet at a party? 

This is a provocative study, but I’m going to need more direct evidence—a change in behavior or mental processing, for example—before I hop on board the Empathy Express.

American Smellscapes: Venice Beach

Fragrance blogger Olfacta revisits old haunts in Southern California and finds they look different but smell the same.

One thing hadn’t changed much: the smells. Clouds of incense, rolling out of stores and vans. Patchouli oil-scented skin. Pot. A group of guys walked ahead of us, smoking a blunt, right out on the street, and why not? . . . Sunscreen. Stale urine—ah, Venice!—and overflowing trash bins. Dreadlocked hair. B.O. in every strength and variety. County-fair food from the stalls and restaurants.
She also reflects on scent and time:
I think that we use scents as references because, in a way, we have to. The visuals change so quickly now, faster and faster. It is scent that slows down time, reminds us in that incomparably visceral way that we’re still here, that the past did exist, that it’s there to be called upon, and it’s free.
Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What’s in a Name?

This photo of a road sign was taken by FirstNerve reader MT while bicycling through the hinterlands of Illinois this summer. And yes, Aroma Park actually exists: it’s a village of 821 souls on the banks of the Kankakee River.

MT’s photo came with a challenge to the FirstNerve brain trust: “Any idea how the town got its name?

Hah! Child’s play, my dear sir.
Founded in 1852 by Alvin and Slocum Wilber, who created the word Aroma by playing on the name of their friend and associate James L. Romer. Reportedly, possible confusion between Aroma and Aurora led to changing the name to Waldron in 1872. It was changed back to Aroma, and the word Park was added about 1915.

[Source: Place Names of Illinois by Edward Callary. University of Illinois Press, 2008]
Too bad there isn’t an olfactory tale behind this delightfully named town.

The name Chicago, on the other hand, has fragrant associations—it was supposedly a local Indian word for “skunky smelling place” or, alternatively, “the river that smells like wild onions.”

UPDATE September 7, 2009

Here’s a link to the origins of “Chicago.”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Trouble in Paradise

Hmmm. I wonder if there’s a subtext to this.