Monday, November 30, 2009

The Helen Keller Fallacy

A persistent misconception about smell is that blind people develop keener noses as compensation for their loss of vision. Because she is so often cited in this regard I think of it as the Helen Keller Fallacy. It’s an idea so deeply soaked into American culture that it appears in comic books: check out Daredevil sometime.

Helen Keller did indeed use her nose well—to recognize people and familiar places.
I used to be able to smell Duluth and St. Louis miles off by their breweries, and the fumes of the whiskey stills of Peoria, Illinois, used to wake me up at night if we passed within smelling distance of it.
That’s cool. But it’s something plenty of sighted people have experienced as well. Keller herself admitted this:
I have not, indeed, the all-knowing scent of the hound or the wild animal.
She also said “In my experience smell is most important . . .” This is understandable; deprived of sight and sound it’s only natural that her perception of the world became more olfactory.

In What the Nose Knows I summarized twenty years worth of scientific studies:
Without exception, they find that the blind are no more sensitive than the sighted—both groups detect odors at about the same concentration.
I found that in half the studies blind people were better at naming odors:
Even here, their success depended on cognitive factors such as memory rather than hyper-acute perception.
Having no access to visual cues, blind people become skilled at naming odors and may even do it better than sighted people. But this is a matter of the brain adapting, not of the nose becoming supersensitive.

Given my opinion, this paper in a recent issue of Neuropsychologia grabbed my attention:
“Odour discrimination and identification are improved in early blindness.”
It’s by a group of researchers in Belgium led by Isabel Cuevas, who works at the Catholic University of Louvain’s Neural Rehabilitation Engineering Laboratory. (Whoa.)

They compared the odor identification abilities of 13 blind men and 13 age-matched sighted men using a set of 30 everyday sort of smells: strawberry, rose, mint, etc. First, they presented a smell and asked the test subject to name it. Here the blind performed significantly better than sighted subjects. 

Next, they asked subjects to place the smell in a semantic category (fruit, flower, plant or other). Here again the blind did significantly better than sighted subjects but their advantage was less than in the free-identification test.

Finally, subjects were asked to identify the odor from a six-item multiple choice list. Here there was no difference in performance between the blind and sighted subjects.

As Cuevas et al. put it, these results indicate that the blind show “enhanced access to semantic information (including the name) from perceived odours” and that they are able to “access this information more efficiently from olfactory inputs.” Fair enough: this is a good example of cognitive compensation. But it is not evidence for compensation at a purely sensory level.

The Belgium team also found that blind subjects were better at discriminating odors, i.e., were better at making same/different judgments when presented with a pair of odors. Cuevas and colleagues argue that this is more of a perceptual skill than a cognitive one, but I’m not convinced. Same/different judgments involve attention and short term memory which are higher-order cognitive skills. 

Unfortunately, the subjects were not tested for olfactory sensitivity which is the purest expression of the compensation hypothesis (“blindness results in a super-sensitive nose”). Still, this is a well done study that explores several facets of olfactory talent. And it leaves me convinced that the Helen Keller Fallacy is just that.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lightning Strikes: New Fragrance for a Cyber-Celebrity

I’ve always liked the idea of creating a fragrance based on a character in an electronic game. I wrote a Lara Croft brief based on Tomb Raider when I was working with DigiScents, Inc. back in the dot com days. The project—like DigiScents itself—ended up going nowhere, but it brought me the good fortune of meeting natural perfumer Mandy Aftel. 

Japanese software company Square Enix is about to roll out a new iteration of its fabulously successful role-playing game called Final Fantasy. FFXIII goes on sale next month in Japan and arrives in the United States in March. Square Enix has regularly cross-marketed its game into movies and merchandise; take a look at these videos for the new FFXIII Elixer softdrink.

Now comes word that the company is also launching a character fragrance, an EDT called Lightning, named after ”the most powerful woman in the entire [Final Fantasy] series.” The line is priced like real juice; 50 ml lists for $82 and retails for $66. This is no $4 Burger King promotional stunt.
So what does Lightning smell like? Well, here’s the fragrance description:


(Don’t worry: it’s written in Ingredient Voice, the universal language of perfume marketing.)

Here’s what it looks like:

Once again, Japan is leading the way in olfactory innovation.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Magic Left in the Wake of a Scented Woman

Of all the styles of psychological experimentation, one of my favorites is the field study. Take a simple behavior, observe it under natural conditions, quantify it, and then carefully perturb it this way and that. Done well, a field study wipes away the detritus of conventional wisdom and reveals new dimensions to perception and behavior. Because field studies don’t usually address Big Questions and hypothetical constructs they tend to be looked down upon by grand theoreticians. But that’s just the reason I like them: direct observation gives you a firm place to plant your boots as you climb along the empirical path.
In the course of blowing a few raspberries at a recent example of poorly executed and over-hyped smell research, I browsed again through the literature on scent and behavior in natural settings. While I described some of it in What the Nose Knows it turns out I missed a fascinating study by a French social psychologist named Nicolas Guéguen.

Published in 2001 under the dry title “Effect of a perfume on prosocial behavior of pedestrians,” the experiment was quite simple. It took place outdoors on sunny days in early spring in a mid-sized French tourist town. Guéguen’s accomplices were four women around twenty years old, dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Each woman took turns standing in front of a phone booth pretending to rummage through her handbag but actually counting passersby. As the tenth random person (other than kids, old folks, and people in groups) approached, she would start walking about three meters ahead and then “accidentally” drop a glove or a packet of tissues. Two observers recorded whether the target person told the confederate that she had dropped something. Simple enough.

The experimental treatment was also simple: the young woman either wore perfume or not. If worn, the perfume was applied sufficiently that it could be detected by the person following three meters behind her. (The French term for one’s trailing personal scent plume is sillage, which literally means “wake.”)

When the young woman who dropped a glove was wearing perfume, the target person called it to her attention 95% of the time compared to only 70% of the time when she was wore no perfume. The difference—the perfume effect—was statistically significant. The comparable results were 20% and 7.5% for a dropped packet of Kleenex. (Guéguen thinks more people helped with the dropped glove because it has greater perceived value.) Whether the target person was male or female made no difference to the results.
The fact that people are more willing to help a young women when she is wearing perfume is intuitively reasonable. What’s neat is that perfume increased helping behavior even in the absence of a direct request. Guéguen doesn’t oversell his results: he found modest effects of perfume under realistic conditions. But in doing so he’s given us a new point of leverage for exploring how people respond to personal fragrance and, perhaps, even why they wear it. Did the perfume affect the target’s mood? Did it make the young lady seem more sympathetic or did it simply draw attention to her? As we answer these questions we’ll begin to write the natural history of perfume use.
*  *  *
I’ve recently criticized some smell studies: ones that promise more than they deliver or that needlessly perpetuate stale conventional wisdom. Part of being a scientist is to be skeptical—of your own results as well as those of others. Constant questioning and cross-checking keep the entire enterprise honest and on track (*cough* global warming *cough* *cough*). So despite the discomfort it might cause my colleagues, I call ‘em like I see ‘em and expect no less in return.

UPDATE November 28, 2009
I emailed Professor Guéguen and he was kind enough to tell me the perfume used in this study. It was Coco by Chanel.

UPDATE May 12, 2019
Questions have been raised about a number of studies published by Nicolas Guéguen, although not this one in particular. See my new post on the matter here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

American Smellscapes: The Stink Tree from Hell

Being a former nature counselor, I was amused by this “can you identify the species?” piece about an invasive, alien tree that smells like rancid peanut butter. (It’s common along the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey.)

The setup to the puzzle is here and the answer is here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Blood Feeding and BO

In our town this weekend young teens were lined up outside the movie theater waiting to see New Moon. This got us thinking about bloodsucking and romance and BO—and about whether Robert Pattinson’s poor press had impacted his social life.

It also got us thinking about these guys. (Go take a look and come right back; we’ll wait.)

With their complex eyes African jumping spiders look like something straight out of Galaxy of Terror. Their feeding habits are equally weird—they are indirect consumers of vertebrate blood. That is to say, their preferred prey is a female mosquito who has just completed a blood meal.

The jumping spider known as Evarcha culicivora can spot the difference between an edible (but less desireable) lake fly and a bloodcarrying mosquito by both sight and smell. Cool, eh?

It gets better. Spiders who have been on a diet of bloodfed female mosquitoes smell more attractive to spiders of the opposite sex; their BO doesn’t alter their attractiveness to same-sex spiders. 

The effect of the bloodfed mosquito diet is temporary; after being switched to a menu of boring lake flies, they quickly lose their mojo: their BO no longer piques the interest of the opposite sex.

Anyway, hope all you kids enjoyed the movie as much as we enjoyed this new paper. Here’s some free advice: go ahead and take the Mickey Mouse social justice courses for the easy “A” but you owe it to yourself to take a class in comparative zoology or animal behavior. Nature is far more bizarre than any horror movie and at least as entertaining.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

More Psychologists Wearing Proust Goggles

It’s a tradition in some scientific journals to publish a commentary piece that highlights a newsworthy article in the current issue. One journal that does this is the weekly Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. The November 10 issue contained a paper by a team of Swiss neuroscientists about emotional memory and genetic variation in the α2b-adrenergic receptor. People with a particular variant form of this neurotransmitter receptor have enhanced emotional memory. The Swiss paper uses fMRI imaging to show that such people also have increased activity in the amygdala—an emotional processing area of the brain—when viewing pictures with negative emotional content.

A cool result: it could have bearing on individual susceptibility to flashbacks of emotional memory or to PTSD.

PNAS invited two psychologists from a University of Toronto research center to put the new results in context. Rebecca Todd and Adam Anderson wrote a commentary called “The neurogenetics of remembering emotions past.”

The Proustian allusion in the title caught my eye. No sooner had I downloaded the paper than the alarm on the First Nerve Bogosity Meter began screaming like an angry fishmonger in Marseille.

Here’s how the paper opens:
Even if you have not waded through all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, you are probably familiar with its most famous scene where the narrator bites into a little cake called a madeleine, dipped in tea, and experiences a wash of vivid emotional memories. This literary moment has captured popular imagination (madeleines are now sold by Starbucks) because it so effectively captures the powerful and involuntary nature of emotional memory.
Oh, boy. Where to begin? Drs. Todd and Anderson completely misrepresent the madeleine scene. Proust’s narrator did not experience “a wash of vivid emotional memories” when slurping his tea-soaked Twinkie; he experienced a vague, nonspecific sense of familiarity, tried repeatedly to re-evoke it, and strained to recall the original memory. What Todd and Anderson call a “literary moment” drags on for page after page.

All of us are familiar with the sudden transports of emotional memory, especially when touched off by a stray smell. Other writers before and after Proust have captured this phenomenon more succinctly and poetically (see here and What the Nose Knows for examples). Proust’s madeleine episode is emphatically not a description of these vivid and effortlessly recalled flashes of memory. Their use of the oxymoronic phrase “Proustian vividness” suggests that that Todd and Anderson have not waded through even the first fifty pages of Swann’s Way.

This could all be forgiven if it were only an embarrassingly sophomoric attempt at literary garnish for a highly technical paper. Unfortunately, having donned their patented Proust Goggles, Todd and Anderson step deeper into the doodoo. They cite Proust as if he were presenting a biomedical hypothesis; by the end of the paper this is how they’re talking about him:
Proust conjectured that emotional memories are more akin to a bodily reflex than to the higher-level meaning-making systems that drive voluntary memory. The finding that genetic polymorphisms in adrenoceptors related to regulating blood pressure are further associated with individual differences in amygdala activation and emotion-enhanced memory is consistent with Proust’s view.
For Pete’s sake! It’s one thing to garble your literary allusions. It’s another to adopt a nearly unreadable proto-modern novelist as your scientific idol. I just don’t get it. What drives psychologists to prostrate themselves at the altar of Professor Proust?

In the psychology of smell memory, the Proust Boosters have come and gone. Despite scads of scientific papers with titles like “Proust nose best”, we now know that odor memory operates like all other forms of memory: it decays with time and can be altered by subsequent experience. Let’s hope that researchers working on adrenergic receptors and brain processing of emotion don’t make us suffer through more cutesy titles and mangled lit-crit.

Enleverez les lunettes de Proust!

[More Proust Goggles here.]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

C-list Celebrity Stamps Feet, Demands Own Fragrance

Nothing like whining to get your way if you’re a four-year-old—or a C-list celebrity with an overweening sense of entitlement.Take the case of Gerard Butler.

Who’s that, you say? You know—the guy in Nim’s Island.

No, not Fantasy Island. Gerard Butler! He was huge in P.S. I Love You

Didn’t see it? Well, he was Yasha in The Cherry Orchard.

Hey, stay awake, I’m talking to you. He was King Leonidas in 300. OK. Yeah, great movie. The guy has awesome pecs and looks excellent in half-animation.

Okay, so Gerard Butler wants his own fragrance so badly he’s bitching about it on BBC radio.
“I need a perfume. I need to tell my publicist to get on that. He’s not got me any worthwhile branding. Clive Owen has his aftershave, Ewan McGregor has cologne. What do I have? Nothing. I don’t know what it would be like, but I need one.”
Waaaaaaaaah! I want my fragrance and I want it NOW.

Exit question: Does Mr. Butler belong in the Pantheon of Pop Perfume alongside the likes of Messrs. Owen and McGregor? Talk to me people.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Going Rogue, Smelling Great

Heh. The new Sarah Palin fragrance

Talk about your “polarizing” perfumes. Although when you think about it, this one would sell like a monster.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

American Smellscapes: New Orleans through Olfacta's Nostrils

My only visit to New Orleans was as a greenhorn graduate student. I gave my first scientific talk at the Eastern Conference on Reproductive Behavior (a.k.a. The Sex Conference) which was held at Tulane University. New Orleans was intoxicating. I remember the music, the bars, the strip clubs, and of course the food: gumbo, jambalaya, platters piled high with spicy crawfish, Bananas Foster at Brennan’s, and the best piece of pecan pie I’ve ever had, served at 2:30 in morning with chicory flavored coffee at a diner whose location it pains me to be unable to recall.

Mmmmm . . . pecan pie.

This reverie was stirred up by blogger Olfacta’s vividly described smellscape of New Orleans
Truth be told, many of the smells of New Orleans aren’t nice.

Old cities, old sewers; it hangs in the air, sweetish and sour, the odor of humanity. It’s always there. You smell it as soon as you get out of the car. There’s garbage, too; piles of it, waiting for the plow, and manure from the horses that pull buggies filled with tourists around the Vieux Carre.
But it’s the food the aromas of cooking that make it all worthwhile.
. . .the steamy smell of seafood boil—spices, like white pepper, cayenne and thyme, added to cooking water—and crabs simmering in it. That scent poured out of the restaurants and stands as the city got ready for its (long) lunch break. I could smell shrimp and oysters frying, too. That seafood smell mixes with the swamp and river and the sewers and the garbage, and it is that which is, for me, the quintessential smell of the old Quarter.
Olfacta’s keen perceptions of New Orleans are a link in a fine, filigreed chain that reaches back into the 19th century, anchored by that remarkable journalist, gourmand, and man of the world Lafcadio Hearn. An acquaintance recalled that Hearn's “olfactory sense was abnormally keen.”
Even the construction of his nose would seem to indicate great abilities in this direction. It was aquiline and quite large, with finely cut, sensitive nostrils that had a queer trick of quivering when he became excited or deeply interested, just as do a horse’s nostrils when he is turned out in a strange pasture.
Hearn wrote a lot about smells. Between 1877 and 1887 he was a reporter for the local dailies. In one memorable editorial in the New Orleans Item he railed about the disgusting, bat-infested conditions of the Parish Prison.
Any wayfarer who lingers in the neighborhood of Congo Square about sundown, may behold the weird prison, a vast flock of winged demons hovering above it, preparing to hold their ghastly revels under a gibbous moon. He may also smell the ghoulish odor outshaken from the wings of the innumerable host of imps. The odor is never to be forgotten. It contains suggestions of many odors—decaying shoe leather, miscarried eggs and dead cats—and yet it is unlike any of these. It is an original and astonishing odor which inspires fantastic dreams of death and dissolution,—Better we think, that the wicked be favored by a speedy death than that they be slowly driven out of the world by the most indescribable of stinks.
New Orleans, like Venice, has always had an olfactory dark side. It’s the ability of the good smells to rise above it that gives the city its piquant charm. Laissez les bon temps roules.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Paging Yoko Ono: Here Come the Dead Celebrity Fragrances

Two weeks ago while sniffing at the fragrance being launched by Roy Orbison’s widow (Pretty Woman, get it? Do ya? Hunh? Do ya?) we took a swipe at John Lennon’s widow.

Okay, this is just plain sad.
Although I’m surprised Yoko Ono didn’t think of it first . . .
Commenter Nathan Branch said he liked the idea of Yoko by Yoko (“There would have to be a very high, piercing introduction note . . .”). But we kept pressing the idea of necrophilic commercial exploitation:
How about Grunge Widow by Courtney Love?
Sonic for Men by Patti Smith?
Well, here’s today’s story from the New York Daily News:
Perfume’s heaven scent: New ‘Antiquity’ fragrances based on DNA of dead celebs

New releases include Elvis and Michael Jackson. The hook: DNA provided by a “renowned celebrity hair collector.”

What fun is blogging when the fragrance industry parodies itself?

UPDATE November 17, 2009

Who’s behind the fragrances based on dead celebrity DNA? The Rev. Dr. Diva Verdun of Beverly Hills, California.

Hey, I didn’t crop it to make her look like Vampira. Took it straight from her page on, which includes these biographical tidbits:

Dr. Diva Verdun, PhD - Entrepreneur, Empowerment (Motivational) Speaker and Executive Producer

Dr. Diva has been a guest speaker at various career trade shows and speaks to diverse groups challenging them to take charge of their own lives. Diva holds a PhD in Metaphysical Pastoral Counseling and is an ordained Minister. Dr. Rev. Diva has established ‘Empowering Word of Truth Ministries’ to empower people to overcome poverty for wealth, failure for success, and dependence for independence so they can live the lives Spirit created them to live. She is the CEO & Executive Producer of Diva Universal Entertainment, and uses her unique empowerment techniques in non-traditional arenas such as modeling and entertainment. Other projects include Diva Style, Diva University of Models, Black’s M.E.N. the Organization/Movement, The Ramesses Man Project, LLC, C’ de Azz Jeans, Connection Films, LLC, Film Festival Academy, News Watchdog Service, Connection Holdings and the 1st and only One-of-a-Kind Perfume made from your DNA genetic code - My DNA Fragrance and the new Barack Obama fragrance POTUS 1600.
Whoooooie! Comedy gold. Res ipsa loquitur.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Gnarly Fart Bomb of Orange County

In the inland reaches of Southern California’s Orange County, east of the 5 freeway, up where the foothills begin, lies the Upper Oso Reservoir. It’s no big deal. But a couple of weeks ago it started to stink like rotten eggs. The smell of hydrogen sulfide was the result of an algae bloom following a weather-related inversion in the water layers of the reservoir. So now it is a big deal—annoying the usually mellow residents of nearby Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita. According to the chief engineer of the Santa Margarita Water District, a 24-year veteran, the stink is “probably the worst one in recent memory.”

Reporter Rashi Kesarwani of The Orange County Register has been all over the story like a bad rash, documenting steps taken by the water district to re-oxygenate the water and encourage the disappearance of the algae. She’s also tracked the response of the local citizenry. 
Fifteen-year-old Trabuco Hills High School student Natalie Caporuscio, a resident of Melinda Heights in Rancho Santa Margarita, described the stench as a “gnarly fart bomb.”
 Not content to vent to the OCR’s man on the scene, residents took to their blogs as well.
Mission Viejo, CA stinks. I mean, it reeks to high heaven. There is a sulphurous odor so malignant and intrusive, it has enveloped the neighborhood and penetrated the walls of my house for nearly 48 hours.
High school student Chase Miller took the next logical step and set up a Facebook group called Oso Reservoir Smells Like Rotten Eggs. It now has 207 members.

This strikes me as an historical moment in the annals of malodor. Instead of quietly seething or complaining to one another in the checkout line at Vons, people suffering through a big stink can assemble in cyberspace and do something useful. They can log time and place and intensity of stink. They can report on remediation efforts. They can know they’re not crazy and not alone. And they can get something done. The online agitation may have helped incite a protest at City Hall in Mission Viejo.

This being California, the city has taken to its blog (yes, the city of Mission Viejo has an official blog) to update residents on its efforts to smother the gnarly fart bomb. No doubt this beats the way local authorities would handle a similar problem in Chicago or Philadelphia. But the old lyrics still haunt: 
Zen fascists will control you
100% natural
You will jog for the master race
And always wear the happy face
Jerry Brown is on the move again Chase Miller. Keep an eye peeled for the suede/denim secret police.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Cook The Ape His Fire & Our Nose: Richard Wrangham & Smell

Smell and taste are intimately related, so much so that we casually speak of flavor as a unitary perception even though it’s a fusion of sensory information from different receptors and nerves. Taste being limited to the perception of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, most of what we regard as flavor is really contributed by smell. The proof is simple: just pinch closed your nose the next time you try a fine wine or a piece of pizza. Minus the nose food and drink are reduced to texture and the most basic of tastes.

The olfactory contribution to flavor is delivered by a reversal of the usual process of smelling. Instead of sniffing at food through our nostrils, we get its aromatic impression via the nasopharynx—the back of the throat. The act of swallowing sends food aroma from the mouth to the nose by the back door. The 19th century American philosopher, critic and food writer Henry Theophilus Finck described this as “the second way of smelling.” Psychologists today prefer the technical term retronasal olfaction, but I like Finck’s version just fine.

In What the Nose Knows, I point out that the second way of smelling is a special feature of human physiology. Few other species savor their food as we do in the act of eating. Predators rip and gulp, herbivores grind away, humans luxuriate. Retronasal olfaction has unique psychological characteristics as well, many discovered only recently by sensory researchers. What this adds up to, in my view, is that the human nose evolved to serve the human mouth. Our hunting dogs may be better adapted to scenting distant prey on the wind, but we are unsurpassed at drawing the nuances of a flavored venison stew.

All of which brings us to the use of spices and the behavior of cooking. Spice use is universal and varies reliably with ecological factors across cultures. Even more fundamental is the use of fire to cook food. And here is where Richard Wrangham and his new book enter the picture. Wrangham is a Harvard University anthropologist; his book is Catching fire: How cooking made us human. Here’s the thrust of it in a nutshell:
I believe the transformative moment that gave rise to the genus Homo, one of the great transitions in the history of life, stemmed from the control of fire and the advent of cooked meals. Cooking increased the value of our food. It changed our bodies, our brains, our use of time, and our social lives. It made us into consumers of external energy and thereby created an organism with a new relationship to nature, dependent on fuel.
Wrangham’s thesis is elegantly laid out in Catching Fire and I won’t attempt to trace all the threads he has woven into it. Simply put, he looks at two important transitions in the evolution of modern humans. The first occurred 2.5 million years ago when the habiline lineage emerged from the chimp-like australopithecines that preceded them. Habilines were larger and bigger-brained and used primitive stone tools, all the better to skin big game. The second transition took place 1.8 million years ago with the appearance of Homo erectus, a proto-human that walked like us and even looked like us, with a small mouth, smaller jaw, and smaller teeth.

Until now, anthropologists had settled on the Man-the-Hunter hypothesis to explain the emergence of both habilines and Homo erectus. Bigger brains made for more clever hunters and weapon makers, bigger bodies for better long distance travel and rapid pursuit, and the whole mix encouraged more cooperative social behavior. Everyone agrees that consistent meat eating made a big difference in human evolution. But a closer look at Man-the-Hunter shows that the hypothesis doesn’t square with what we know of the dietary economics of hunter-gatherer societies.

Wrangham’s contribution is to view these transitions as driven by the higher food value and time savings obtained by cooking meat and gathered foods such as tubers. In other words, the evolution of modern humans was driven by the control and use of fire. (Again, read his book for the fascinating array of evidence—it includes calorie availability, relative gut length, sexual division of labor, and an analysis of how long it takes to chew raw monkey meat off the bone.)

Wrangham’s a audacious idea relies on a detailed reading of the fossil record—the dating of campfire sites, refuse middens, and pollen grains. Suffice it to say that new evidence keeps pushing back the date for the first use of fire by proto-humans. Wrangham’s hypothesis is more than plausible.

Catching Fire was published after my book, so I relied on Wrangham’s earlier scientific papers to describe his ideas. In my chapter “A Nose for the Mouth” I take the ball and run with it, pointing out that cooking produces novel smells (carmelized and roasted notes); that the domestication of livestock produced new food smells (milk, yogurt, and cheese); that the domestication of grains produced new smells (gruel, bread, and toasted notes); and last, but not least, that fermented alcoholic beverages produce even more.

Add to this the new studies showing that olfactory receptor genes evolve rapidly, especially in the past 20,000 years during which domestication of animals and crops took place. The resulting picture, I argue, is one in which human olfactory abilities are fine-tuned by evolution to create higher-resolution flavor perception. In effect, our nose evolved to serve our mouth.

I just got around to Catching Fire and enjoyed it. It’s a captivating story, well-told: science in a conversational tone. Given my obsessive focus, I looked eagerly for what Wrangham had to say about smell. Surprisingly little it turns out. In one passage he describes how modern non-human primates prefer sweet and cooked food, just as we do, and how these preferences may be hardwired in our brain. In another, he vividly describes the taste of various fruits in the chimpanzee diet. Wrangham is my kind of scientist: a field guy who just rolls up his sleeves and tries a mouthful of Pseudospondias microcarpa fruits. Verdict: inedibly bitter due to high tannin content. Conclusion?
The shifts in food preference between chimpanzees and humans suggest that our species has a reduced physiological tolerance for foods high in toxins or tannins. Since cooking predictably destroys many toxins, we may have evolved a relatively sensitive palate.
I agree. I also think there’s a lot more good science to be done in the paleo-anthropology of olfaction. Let’s get out there and do it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

ISDP: House of a Dozen Corpses

This is the third ISDP to fall on Friday the 13th—the day that inspired us to premiere this monthly assemblage of the olfactory macabre. If perfumes are the Walt Disney version of smell then the rank stench of decomposition is the Rob Zombie version. The faint of heart should turn away immediately—don’t take that unpaved road toward the abandoned farm house, don’t go into that dark cellar without a flashlight. The rest of you—well, just follow Captain Spalding into the Museum of Monsters & Madmen. And be sure to try the fried chicken!

The case of the Cleveland serial killer has creeping up everyone’s nostrils the past couple of weeks. Anthony Sowell, now 50, plead guilty to attempted rape in 1989 and spent 15 years in prison. On his release in 2005 he moved into a house owned by his stepmother. In 2007 she tried to get him evicted for failure to pay rent but was later hospitalized, leaving him alone in the house. In June of that year a resident across the street called City Hall to complain about “a foul odor” in the neighborhood.

This would seem to be the first indication that Sowell was up to no good—inviting women into his house where they would be raped and strangled and their bodies stashed. Police have now discovered and identified the remains of eleven women.

Local politicians are exercising 20-20 hindsight and playing to the grandstands:
Local councilman Zack Reed said he would push for an independent investigation into why complaints about the smell did not lead to an earlier discovery.

‘‘Residents are mad and they have every right to be mad,’’ he said.

Mr Reed said his office called the public health department about 2½ years ago after a neighbor reported the smell.

‘‘I know darned well that our health department should have been able to tell the difference between the smell of a dead body and the smell of dead meat,’’ he said.
Really? Councilman Reed thinks it ought to have been a clear call but the fact is that people close to the scene misinterpreted the smell for years.
CLEVELAND — For the past few years, neighbors assumed the foul smell enveloping their street corner had been coming from a brick building where workers churned out sausage and head cheese.

It got so bad that the owners of Ray’s Sausage replaced their sewer line and grease traps. Now they know the odor was coming from a three-story house next door where the decomposing bodies of six women were found.

“We hope they don’t find anymore,” said Renee Cash, whose family has operated the sausage company for 57 years.

About four years ago, she and other workers started noticing a smell that was so bad on some days that it forced them to leave their office.

“In the summertime, it was gross,” Cash said. “You could always smell it. It smelled like something rotten.”
Ray’s Sausage is next door to Sowell’s house. Ms. Cash has learned the hard way that the public reaction to a mega-stink is to point the finger at the nearest corporation. Never mind that a sausage factory should never smell like rotting meat; Ms. Cash ended up wasting her company’s money in a fruitless attempt to prove she was a solid citizen.

Another person suffering from olfactory misdirection was Lori Frazier, who lived in the house with Sowell from 2005 to 2007. 
Asked whether she had noticed a foul odor, Frazier told WOIO, “Yeah, I smelled stuff, but he always told me that -- at first he said it was his stepmother downstairs. And then I guess after she left, he told me that it was Ray’s Sausage.”
Lori Frazier is the nice of Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson. Hey, Councilman Reed, you don’t suppose that’s a reason why local authorities were less than eager to investigate? Just saying.

Once the other shoe drops, everyone has 20/20 hindsight.
Storeowner Says Sowell Put Foul-Smelling Bags In Dumpster

CLEVELAND -- The former owner of a convenience store across the street from Anthony Sowell’s house told NewsChannel5 he believes Sowell may have dumped some of his victims in a garbage bin outside the store.

Sowell was seen at the Imperial Grocery almost every day, but former owner Assad Tayeh says it’s what he thinks Sowell put in the Dumpster that is raising new questions.

“A bag, a big bag stuffed and wrapped with duct tape and there was a very bad smell coming out of it,” said Tayeh.

“God knows how many bodies he put in those Dumpsters.”

Indeed. And right under your nose.

*  *  *

According to one report, police in Sacramento, California found themselves investigating an apparent double homicide “after neighbors reported a foul odor.” One body was found stuffed in a garbage can inside a house; the other was in a open lot nearby. Residents and relatives believe the victims to be a 23-year old woman and her 24-year old boyfriend. The woman had been reported missing ten days earlier. The Sacramento County Coroner’s Office says the victims were shot to death. Douglas Keith Elmore, 24, was arrested two days later and charged with two counts of murder. 

However, a story filed by Hudson Sangree of the Sacramento Bee paints a more complex picture of the crime scene smellscape, including bureaucratic run-arounds, a cursory initial police investigation that found nothing, and finally a neighbor taking matters into his own hands and moving the garbage, only to find the first body.

In a similar case in Sanford, Florida, concerned citizens on the track of a bad smell found a dead body in nearby woods on Halloween morning.

Officials said the body was found Saturday morning at 11 a.m. but residents in the area said they had noticed a foul smell in the area for several days.

“It smelled like a dead animal,” said one local.

Residents said they conducted their own investigation into the source of the smell and that’s when they stumbled on the body in a thick brush.
First Nerve salutes the self-reliant citizens of Sanford.

On November 5 in Redwood City, California, maintenance workers responding to complaints from neighbors of “a foul smell” discovered the body of a 21-year man decomposing in a covered public swimming pool in Hoover Park. 
A notice on the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Web site said the pool was not open for the 2009 season. Agency officials declined to say why the pool had been closed.
Things are really bad in the Golden State.

According to Redwood City police, the deceased “suffered from mental health issues” but “it is impossible to determine whether the death was a suicide.” Family accounts paint an upbeat picture of the deceased.

On Election Day in Whitman, Massachusetts:
Whitman Police and Fire discovered the corpse of a male Tuesday in a trailer on Cherry Street.

A neighbor called to report a foul odor coming from the camper located at 96 Cherry St. . . . 

The owner of the property told investigators a 66-year-old male had been living in the trailer for approximately a year.
A contractor hired to winterize a home in Snohomish County, Washington, found the place “had been barricaded from inside and sheets covered all the windows.” He also noticed “a foul smell” and called police. They found a dead body in the bathroom next to a rifle. They believe the deceased is the home’s 50-year owner.

Finally, we have this month’s nominee for the Norman Bates Award via this headline from the Tyler Morning Telegraph:
Woman Found Living With Week-Old Corpse
The incident occurred October 9 in the Texas town of Big Sandy
Big Sandy police Lt. Van Burr said a man flagged down officer Wes Walters about 11:30 a.m. Friday and told him he smelled a foul odor coming from his sister’s Hillcrest Manor apartment.

The brother visited the apartment earlier, but his sister did not let him in, he said.

Once police went into the house, they found William Drake, 50, dead on a couch.

Drake appears to have died of natural causes. The 45-year-old woman has been committed for mental evaluation.

UPDATE December 13, 2009

Here’s one we missed. On Halloween in Phoenix, Arizona, a resident tossing some trash into a dumpster behind a vacant business noticed “a bad odor.” Police found the dismembered body of a 42-year-old local man scattered among several containers.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Smelling the 10-20 of the 420

NBC Los Angeles reports on a pot bust in Palmdale, California:
Deputies patrolling in the 37500 block of Golden Circle about 6 p.m. Wednesday evening got a tell-tale whiff of the pungent herb and followed the scent to a particular address.
There they found a marijuana grow house with approximately 400 plants and arrested a man on the premises.

This story has the First Nerve Bogosity Meter wailing like the siren on a Mayberry patrol car.

Fresh cannabis plants can be identified by smell at close range, but experiments conducted by Richard Doty and colleagues showed that it is extremely difficult to detect fresh cannabis from outside a car trunk or a grow house.

Now it’s possible that the grow-house caretaker was stupid enough to light up and sample some product on the patio. The smell of burning pot is certainly a “pungent” tell-tale. But if the Palmdale deputies are claiming to have smelled fresh plant material from outside the house and down the block, then the bustee’s attorney should call bullshit and spring his client on Fourth Amendment grounds.

The photo atop the NBC story shows immature pot plants—the least fragrant form of the plant. If this is a photo of the bust site (and not a stock photo) then the official story is even more ludicrous.

[Link now fixed.]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Katie Puckrik Smells Avery Gilbert

The First Nerve formula for success: go on camera with an attractive female interviewer and talk about sex, perfume, BO and  . . . defrosted feminine hygiene products.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Anosmia of the Lambs

Via Drudge:

Suspected US serial killer blamed stench on sausage factory.
This week’s edition of I Smell Dead People is going to be a classic.
A woman who lived for years with an alleged serial killer said she never suspected the putrid smell at their Cleveland, Ohio home came from decomposing bodies, after being told the stench came from a sausage factory.
Clarice, how do you like my new cologne?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Chandler Burr: MIA at NYT

We noticed a piteous, mewling noise recently. It was coming from a part of the blogosphere we seldom visit—the drafty, empty rooms of “The Moment” at the New York Times website.

There, beneath Chandler Burr’s last perfume review—dated July 31, 2009—we found these mournful comments:
September 8, 2009 10:06 am
I hope you will soon review more fragrances :o) Thanks.

September 18, 2009 1:13 pm
Hey, is this blog on hiatus?
I’m looking forward to more reviews!
— Pedro D’Ardis

October 23, 2009 7:04 am

What’s happening with this blog? i loved it…
— michael
Such sad Mouseketeers (Anette! Pedro! Michael!). Could it already be the end of the show? (“Now it’s time to say goodbye to all our company . . .”) We decided to look around a bit more.

On September 4, Sandra Ballentine wrote about the new Daphne Guinness fragrance. Her commenters weren’t interested.
September 4, 2009 7:16 pm

Where’s Scent Notes by Chandler Burr? He doesn’t seem to have published a review in over a month.
— Guy Bannis

September 15, 2009 4:10 pm

Seconded! I miss Chandler! Is he on an extended vacation, or is Scent Notes no more?
— ac

September 25, 2009 3:50 pm

Where is Chandler Burr? I miss Scent Notes. Is this feature gone for good?
— Gerri
Uh oh. More disaffected Mouseketeers (Guy! AC! Gerri!). If the unrest spreads to another Times style column it would (by NYT editorial standards) constitute a “trend.”

On October 5, Monica Khemsurov wrote about fragrances by designers and architects. Here’s what her readers said:
October 6, 2009 12:59 am

I’ve got to assume that Chandler Burr is no longer writing Scent Notes for NY Times. He has been AWOL for two months now.
— Guy

October 10, 2009 12:18 pm

Yes, where is Chandler? Anyone know? I miss his Scent Notes column.
— Randy

October 19, 2009 9:58 am

Chandler Burr’s writing was the best thing about T magazine. Did his reviews offend the perfume companies or what?
— Jane Harlan-Simmons
Call the Trend Desk! It’s a veritable chorus of lamentation.

But hold on, Mouseketeers (Guy! Randy! Jane!). There’s a Burr by-line in the 5th Anniversary Issue of Women’s Fall Fashion. It ran on August 16 under the ominous headline “Eau de Woe: What Does The Recession Smell Like? Chandler Burr Inhales The Void.”

Inhales the void? Sweet Jesus! Has he been sucking on the tailpipe of Aunt Mabel’s Gran Torino? Thought we took the battery out of that fucker.

The 819-word style piece is full of unsettling imagery:
recession . . . emptiness . . . absence of people . . . fragrance sales have fallen . . . my investment statements [. . .] convey the smell of nothing . . . everyone is depressed . . . we’re edging into the olfactory void again . . .
Could this be his valedictory to perfume reviewing?

We were looking for the phone number of the Aromatherapy Prevention Hotline when we found this communication from Mouseketeer Mike on Basenotes. It’s allegedly from the NYT Void Huffer himself:
I went on a hiatus . . .
The blog column should be coming back when I stop drowning in stuff.
Again with the imagery! You’re making everyone in the clubhouse very nervous. Jean-Claude Ellena's publicist just passed out. Frédéric Malle is even more, how you say, triste than usual. Plus the First Nerve technical staff is getting a little twitchy. Their livelihood depends on the BurrOmeter. We sank a lot of capital into a top-of-the-line model and only used it twice. Going to have a hard time justifying that expense at the next board of directors meeting.

Hurry back.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

First Nerve on Air: The Faith Middleton Show

Wow. Taped this interview with Faith Middleton a looong time back and almost forgot about it. Aired a couple of days ago. You can listen or download here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When Worlds Collide: Hipster Clubs and the Smell of Death

The Uncle Fester-like fans of our monthly ISDP feature know that an obsession with the Dark Side of smell has an upside: it opens new perspectives on social behavior and local manners.

This week the disagreeable smell of bodily decay intersected with another disagreeable trend: the infestation of Lower Manhattan by urban hipsters. Gawker has the big picture while zooms in closer.

But the ultimate source of the story is an excellent first-person narrative on Cloudy’s blog post is even titled “I Smell Dead People.”

Imitation is the sincerest yadda yadda. Our nostrils flare with pride!

[Image brazenly appropriated from Mr. Cloudy.]

Monday, November 2, 2009

Cranking the Bubble Machine: “The Smell of Virtue”, Pt. 2

In reviewing Katie Liljenquist’s study of Windex and “the smell of virtue”, I pointed out some of its weaker points—the lack of control conditions using other odors, and its glib treatment of moral concepts. Other aspects of the study had the alarm on FirstNerve Bogosity Meter bleating like an angry goat, but I thought it unseemly for my critique to run longer than her entire scientific article. So I scrawled a few notes on my copy of the manuscript and set it aside. 

(Yes, manuscript. Although news stories based on a BYU press release are fully dispersed on the Internet, an electronic pre-print is not yet available from Psychological Science. Dr. Liljenquist was kind enough to send me the manuscript. It is also available here.)

One of my marginal notes was “What does it smell like?” The description of “citrus-scented Windex” puzzled me—I still think of Windex as the blue liquid in the spray bottle, the Glass Cleaner with Ammonia-D®. One thing we’ve learned at great cost over the years in the study of smell is that you have to be specific about the scents you use, if for no other reason than it allows others to replicate your work. Another lesson: any one scientist’s description of a test smell doesn’t cut it. For example, in the Liljenquist study there is no independent evidence that volunteers found the Windex product to smell “clean” or “citrus-like”.

What sent me back to my notes were comments on my post by Minette, who blogs at Minette also takes issue with the study and in doing so riffs on the olfactory character of Windex. She challenges Liljenquist’s characterization of it as “unobtrusive” and asks why other types of cleanser odors weren’t used. She also said she couldn’t find the product on the Windex website.

Well, that did it: time to sniff for myself. I drove over to the A&P and checked out the chemical aisle. There was the blue stuff: Original Windex With Streak Free Shine! Next to it was Windex Antibacterial Multi-Surface cleanser: Kills 99.9% of Bacteria in Seconds! Windex AMS is a yellow liquid and has a sliced lemon on the label. This, evidently, is what was used in the Liljenquist study.

I brought the yellow AMS home and rummaged around under the sink for my bottle of Original. Spraying each on a blotter card—the preferred method of fragrance evaluation for household cleaning products—I could now compare the two. Windex Original has that familiar soapy note that takes the edge off the ammonia smell. Windex AMS smells like lemons: there’s a sweet, lemon gum drop note but also something harsher and terpenic beneath it. It’s no wonder it doesn’t smell like ammonia: the label proclaims it Ammonia Free!

So if you—like Minette—were imagining the iconic ammonia smell of Original Windex and having a hard time squaring it with the smell of virtue—well, the problem isn’t with you. 

But where could we have gotten the idea that the Windex in question was a glass cleaner and not a hard-surface cleanser?

Oh, that’s right. From the BYU press release:

Exit question: Shouldn’t three business school professors respect the difference between product segments, brand extensions, and flankers?

P.S. An academic buddy of mine told me I should send a link of my post to the editors at Psychological Science. Nice idea. When I looked up the journal’s masthead who did I find on the editorial board? Why, Adam D. Galinsky, one of the authors.

As the Church Lady used to say, “How conveeeeeenient.”

P.P.S. Full disclosure: S.C. Johnson is a former client of mine; I belong to the Association for Psychological Science and subscribe to its journal; and I think Dr. Liljenquist has great squeegee technique.

UPDATE November 16, 2009

Looks like I'm not the only one who’s wearing his cranky pants.

UPDATE November 19, 2009

Michael O’Brien at Human Resource Executive Online uses the First Nerve critique to nicely balance his story on the Liljenquist study.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Okay, this is just plain sad.

Although I’m surprised Yoko Ono didn’t think of it first . . .