Saturday, January 28, 2012

Adjusting the Proust Goggles

[Steampunk eyewear by Kyle Miller.]

FN reader and fledgling science blogger Cellularscale brought this one to my attention a few days ago. It’s a new paper by a Dutch research team at Utrecht University. Their topic is the Proustian Hypothesis, which holds that odors are more effective triggers of emotional memories than cues in other sense modalities. This frequently invoked notion, along with the crediting of it to the French novelist, is one that I beat to a bloody pulp in a chapter of What the Nose Knows called “Proust’s Soggy Madeleine.”

So when Cellularscale pointed me to “Proust revisited: Odours as triggers of aversive memories,” I downloaded a copy and opened it with interest. Would this group of psychologists be Proust Boosters or Proust Busters?

They begin by noting that previous studies have led to conflicting results regarding olfactory exceptionalism. They also point to a methodological problem: most studies of sensory-cued memories fail to “control for individual differences between memories in terms of content, affective value, and time past since encoding.” In the usual experimental design, you are offered a smell/picture/sound and asked to recall a memory associated with it. So a smoky scent might remind one person of good times at the smokehouse on grandpa’s farm, and another of a traumatic house fire, leading to big-time variability and statistical noise.

One way to reduce this variability is to create a uniform memory in the lab. The Utrecht team did this by having volunteers watch a 12-minute film involving traffic accidents, surgery, and people being crushed by a stampeding elephant. (When it comes to aversive stimuli, psychologists can really deliver the goods!)

The film was accompanied by a scent in the test room, along with background lighting and a soundtrack. All three sensory cues were elaborately pilot tested beforehand to insure that they were equally pleasant, intense and arousing. (The odor was IFF’s Cassifix, dissolved in isopropyl myristate).

Volunteers watched the film and rated it on emotionality, vividness, pleasantness, and arousal. A week later, they came back to the lab expecting to watch another film. Instead, they were asked to write down their memory of the earlier film, and rate the memory on the same dimensions (along with “level of detail” and “evocativeness.”). While doing this they were randomly exposed to one of the three background stimuli from the earlier session: either olfactory, auditory, or visual.

The film-memory ratings were compared across the three groups. Odor-cued memories were less pleasant, more arousing and experienced as more detailed than memories evoked by the music cues. However,
Memories evoked by a visual trigger did not differ significantly from memories evoked by an odour or by music.
While odors trumped tunes, they “were not more evocative or emotive than visual triggers.”

So how best to view these results? It depends on whether or not you’re wearing Proust goggles. If you are, then you focus on the hypothesis-saving effectiveness of smell over sound. If not, you see this as more evidence that smell doesn’t live up to its reputation as a super-cue for memory.

The study discussed here is “Proust revisited: Odours as triggers of aversive memories,” by Marieke B.J. Toffolo, Monique A.M. Smeets, and Marcel A. van den Hout, published in Cognition and Emotion, 26:83-92, 2012.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Annals of Marketing: Blood, Sex and Alibis

This concept is so irreducibly dumb it might succeed. The Alibi line of fragrances, produced by a South African lap dance club, provides olfactory camouflage and plausible deniability for guys who return home after a night of slipping tens and twenties into G-strings.
For example, My Car Broke Down is said to recreate the scent of fuel, burnt rubber, grease and steel, while I Was Working Late packs the odour of coffee, wool suits, cigarettes and ink.
Now if they could only solve the problem of the telltale glitter . . .

A while back we covered the quiet takeover of Human Pheromone Sciences by fan-forum-bundler masquerading as social-media-company CrowdGather, and how they planned an eau de Geek. Well, c’est arrivé.
Erox, [is] a unisex fragrance that CrowdGather claims is the first to contain a combination of two synthetic human pheromones, androstadienone and estratetraenol, and HPS’s patent-pending compound muiricin angluycone (ER303)
According to CEO Sanjay Sabnani, “the celebrity spokesperson for Erox will be model and reality star Adrianne Curry.” [Adrianne who? The one whose family owns the Palms in Las Vegas?—Ed.] No. [The romance writer?—Ed.] No! [Not that chick from Celebrity Paranormal Project?—Ed.] Yes, that one!

We’ve been thinking about vampires since watching The Hunger on Netflix the other night. It stars David Bowie and the ever-hot Catherine Deneuve. The latter also gets herself twisted in the sheets with Susan Sarandon who, although eight years past Rocky Horror, hadn’t yet become a full-fledged Hollywood activist-crone.

Deneuve once had her own perfume which, if memory serves, wasn’t half bad. So blood and scent were on our mind when this brand idea popped up: “A scent to suit your blood group.”
Italian niche brand Blood Concept has developed four unisex perfumes based around the four main blood types: A, B, AB and O.

These are perfumes based on ‘the actual smell of blood’, with creators describing all four as having underriding ‘vague metallic suspicions’.
Sure, why not?

According to rumor, Lady Gaga wants to spike her upcoming fragrance with a drop of her own blood. For some reason, this reminded us of an old limerick.
There was a young vampire called Mable,
Whose periods were heavy yet stable,
At every full moon,
She took out a spoon,
And drank herself under the table.

À votre santé!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Olfactory Tips from the Free Clinic

So you’ve exchanged a few text messages with that guy you met on, you’ve carefully chosen an outfit that’s alluring yet not Jersey Shore-ish, and you’re heading out the door for your first face-to-face, hoping for the best.

Remember one thing: get a good sniff of Mr. Eligible before taking things to the next level.

That’s the net-net from a new paper in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Extending to humans a finding that has been well established in rats and mice, a team of Russian scientists has found that guys battling an infectious disease smell, uh, somewhat “putrid” in the armpits. And since the disease in question is gonorrhea, rank BO is another thing to watch for, along with whether he pays for the drinks and holds the door.

Mikhail Moshkin and colleagues from scientific institutes in chilly Siberia used the now-classic cotton-pads-pinned-into-T-shirts technique to collect axillary odor from young men. The odor donors included guys with current gonorrhea infection, guys cured of same, and guys who were never infected. A group of young women rated the BO samples for strength and pleasantness, and described them using a list of adjectives.

The results in a nutshell: infectious disease reduces a person’s odor attractiveness, and
The odor of infected persons was more often associated with a putrid smell. The odor of recovered persons was more often associated with a floral smell.
Moshkin et al. observed the usual experimental niceties: the odor donors refrained from eating spicy food for two days before the study, the odor judges did not use hormonal contraceptives, and the BO samples were stored at -20°C. The judge’s menstrual cycle phase made no difference to the outcome.

Saliva sample from the male odor donors were analyzed for testosterone, cortisol, and immunoglobulins A and G. None of these measures differed significantly among the three test groups. However,
while salivary IgA and IgG concentrations were insignificantly higher in the infected persons, they correlated negatively with pleasantness scores and positively with prevalence of putrid associations. A high level of the nonspecific salivary immunoglobulins reflects activation of the defensive mechanisms due to general antigenic pressure on the immune system. Several studies on laboratory animals demonstrate that antigen-induced immunoenhancement leads to reduction of male scent attractiveness.
Another small victory for the human sense of smell. Forget about electronic noses, trained service dogs, or hacking into private medical records. Just use your nose.

The study discussed here is “Scent recognition of infected status in humans,” by Mikhail Moshkin, Nadezhda Litvinova, Ekaterina A. Litvinova, Alena Bedareva, Andrey Lutsyuk, and Ludmilla Gerlinskaya, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, ahead of print, on December 6, 2011.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Parlux Fragrances: Deal or No Deal?

Bloomberg reporter Tara Lachapelle reviews the state of play in the Perfumania (PERF) takeover of Parlux Fragrances (PARL). Since the announcement on December 23, 2011, Perfumania’s stock has declined by roughly 50%, while Parlux shares have risen to just under the offer price. To Lachapelle, this means investors believe Parlux may not be able to come up with the $15 million cash on hand required by the terms of the deal.

And what a remarkable deal it is:
At 42 times Parlux’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, the takeover is the most expensive for any acquisition in the cosmetics and toiletries industry greater than $100 million. The 140 percent premium is also the industry’s richest since 1999, the data show. The transaction, valued at about $131 million yesterday, is now greater than Perfumania’s own market capitalization of $92.4 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Parlux reports its earnings in the week ending February 10. So that’s when we’ll learn whether the company has amassed enough additional cash for the deal to go through.

A Critical Moment in Monrovia

In political news stories, “stink” is usually a metaphor for corruption. But in Liberia, the stink is literal and it’s emanating from newly renovated restrooms in the capitol building. The stench has caused heated debate among legislators:
“It is beyond my thinking for a man, who requested for this building to host presidential ball to come here at about 8:00 am to complain of bad smell. This place was used by thousands of people, and definitely you as normal human being should expect offensive smell”, he responded.
Wait a minute. Smelly visitors to the capitol? That rings a bell.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

This is What Democracy Smells Like?

OWS on parade in S.F.

FirstNerve has followed the career of olfactory artist Gayil Nalls ever since I interviewed her back in 2009. This week she’s launched her latest project, “The Smell of a Critical Moment.” It seems to be a group olfactory portrait of Occupy Wall Street. The expected headline from the New York Post (‘Occupy’ art a stinker) led me to look at how Nalls herself describes the show:
This exhibition is concerned with the conjunctions where art, olfaction and politics intertwine.
Neato! That’s also one of FN’s favorite triple conjunctions.
With this work, Gayil Nalls argues that the sense of collective experience has distinct olfactory aesthetics.
OK. Every crowd has its own smell.
While predominately imperceptible, the sense of smell allows for a binding power contributing to the sensus communis, or the power of the people, demonstrating that the sociocultural Zeitgeist or mood of this movement has an olfactory truth.
Olfactory truth of the Zeitgeist? Uh . . . I guess so. In my experience, “power to the people” smells like pot, patchouli, and jug wine.
Visitors will experience chemosensory messages of Occupy Wall Street protestors from tee shirts worn by 99 participants: physical Occupiers, working group members and solidarity marchers.
“The comrades of the Park Slope Organic Arugula Collective sweat in solidarity with the oppressed brothers and sisters of the Noam Chomsky Anti-Imperialist Study Group!”
A tag hangs from each shirt revealing identification and contact information for each individual and their [sic] statement of dissent.
Hmmm . . . that could backfire.
The shirts give form to a body of messages, having been worn for the previous week, absorbing the molecular form of this enigmatic moment.
What was enigmatic about it? I went to Zucotti Park and saw a bunch of neo-hippies pissed off about their student loans, along with a lot of the usual protest fringers (LaRouchians, Krishnas, anarchists and stoners). I found it emblematic of the stale state of the “progressive” movement.

If you missed Zucotti live, you can get a nostalgic nose full of it courtesy of Gayil Nalls at Doorways, 62 Van Duzer Street, in Staten Island, NY, through February 11.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

ISDP January 2012: In the Closet & the Norman Bates Award

Here at FirstNerve Manor, we have a mind of winter. From the north belfry we can see “The spruces rough in the distant glitter / Of the January sun.” Indeed, this installment of ISDP spans the winter solstice, traditionally a fallow period for those episodes in which some unfortunate soul catches a whiff of foul odor and discovers the earthly remains of an even more unfortunate soul.

Keeping to statistical form, we have only one new case to report. And yet, it shares unsettling similarities to an earlier one. Back in August, we ran this item from Florida:
The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a death at a Pensacola Beach residence reported this weekend.

At about 11 a.m. Saturday, deputies responded to a report of a foul odor coming from a unit at Starboard Village condominiums on Fort Pickens Road on Pensacola Beach.

Inside the condo, deputies found a woman’s body in a state of decomposition.
In December, we learned the story behind the body in the Pensacola condo:
Charles Boshell tried to convince the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office that his girlfriend committed suicide.

But four months after Caroline Marbury-Smart’s decomposing body was found in a closet at her Pensacola Beach condo, Boshell faces a charge of murder.
Boshell was extradited from Louisiana; he is 46 years old. His alleged victim was 54.
The officers had gone to the condo after Boshell called law enforcement to say he was in North Carolina but had received a call that there was a foul odor coming from the condo.

Boshell told them that he found Marbury-Smart dead in the condo when he returned from working in Louisiana. He said she had a belt around her neck and was hanging from a ceiling fan in the master bedroom. He said he used a knife from the kitchen to cut her down.

“Boshell stated that he placed Caroline Marbury-Smart in the closet in the master bedroom and did not call the police because he was not thinking right,” according to the officers' report.
Authorities aren’t buying Boshell’s story. A report filed by police noted that the ceiling fan “showed no signs of supporting the weight of a person for a period of time.” A belt found in the bedroom by deputies had blood on it, but it had not been cut. An autopsy revealed that Marbury-Smart’s body showed no signs of hanging by the neck.
Deputies also located a friend of Marbury-Smart’s, Wanda Bosso. She told them Marbury-Smart often expressed fear of Boshell.

“Wanda, please, if you ever find me missing or dead, please tell them Charlie killed me,” Bosso reported her friend saying.
The new incident occurred near Syracuse, New York, just before New Year’s, in the town of Baldwinsville.
The Onondaga County Sheriff’s office says a woman found dead in her Baldwinsville apartment on Friday was murdered by her husband.

A maintenance worker at the Village Green Apartments discovered the body of Rebecca Dethlefs, 56, Friday after neighbors reported a foul odor coming from the apartment. Deputies say the body was decomposed and may have been there for up to a week.
In fact, the body was there when deputies visited the apartment two days earlier.
On December 28th, Sheriff’s deputies were called to the apartment because Dethlefs’ employer said she had not shown up for a couple of shifts as a traveling nurse at a hospital. At the time, neighbors indicated she may have been visiting relatives in New York City and Sheriff Walsh says deputies did not have a reason to break into the apartment.

“She works as a traveling nurse for a company out of Florida. She was working at a local hospital and hadn’t shown up for a couple of shifts,” said Sheriff Kevin Walsh.
Well, they eventually came back. According to another source,
Dethlefs’ body was found in a closet.
And here’s the creepy similarity:
Burger was sentenced to 81/3 years to life in prison in 1964. Burger stabbed the Rev. Francis McShane three times and propped the body in a sitting position in a closet in McShane’s sister’s Manhattan apartment, according to an Associated Press article from 1963.

Burger served 28 years in prison, according to Syracuse-area media outlets, and was paroled in 2007.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the announcement of the 2011 Norman Bates Award. The prize is given to the person or persons who has shown exemplary, if bizarre, fortitude in living in close quarters with a dead body. This year’s nominees are:
The anonymous burglars in Hartford, Connecticut, for repeatedly entering and ransacking the home of Debra Jurasus even as her remains lay rotting in the recliner where she had died.

John Clauer, of Santa Cruz, California, for spending a week in his apartment along with the remains of his girlfriend, who died under suspicious circumstances.

Twin brothers Edwin Larry Berndt and Edward Christian Berndt, of Houston, Texas, for letting their 89-year-old mother die on the floor of the foyer and then living “for three months with her decomposing, bug-infested corpse.”

Forty-three year old hoarder Ronald Opilka, of Chicago, for living in a town house with his 80-year-old mother Cecylia Opilka, also a hoarder, who had expired days earlier. Her body was found when neighbors called police to complain about a foul odor.

Patrick Lara, 45, of Merced, California, for failing to call for medical assistance when his uncle injured himself and died, and then living with the moldy body for 30 days while using his uncle’s credit card to run up gambling debts.

With so many outstanding nominees, this year’s selection process was difficult. On the basis of family values, the field narrows to the Berndt twins, Mr. Opilka, and Mr. Lara. And while all are deserving of recognition, Edwin and Edward Berndt take the cake. They’ve proved that it’s not just weirdo loners who have the massive olfactory denial needed to pull off a Bates-worthy co-habitation. Congratulation to the Berndt boys!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Will Joe Jackson & Julian Rouas Stop at Nothing?

Joe Jackson and Julian “Franck” Rouas (of Julian Rouas Paris) have once again set a launch date for their Jackson-themed fragrances. On January 21, they will release the JRP/Jackson Perfume Collection.

From a booth in the Las Vegas Fashion Show Mall . . .

Without Michael Jackson’s name . . .




Hat tip to FN commenter Beatrice, who also pointed us to a site that is a treasure trove of material on Julian “Franck” Rouas. Police reports, lawsuits, eviction notices, credit reports and more.

Links to our previous coverage.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Big Brain and a Keen Nose

“The olfactory system was the thing that drove the expansion of the brain in the first place, and once you’ve got a big brain you can do all kinds of things with it.”
--Timothy Rowe
A major theme in What the Nose Knows is that the sense of smell is more about brain than nose. Odor perception is cognitive and analytical, not merely emotional and reactive. And the computational aspect of odor perception is made possible by large and complex sensory processing areas in the brain.

Two studies this past year reinforce the point. The first involves developments at the dawn of the Age of Mammals; the second is about changes in the human lineage that, in the context of evolutionary time, occurred only yesterday.

The first study, led by paleontologist Timothy Rowe at the University of Texas, used high-resolution CT scans of fossil skulls to create digital endocasts, or 3D models, approximating the brain shape of two long-extinct creatures thought to be the precursors of today’s mammals.

The mammalian lineage diverged from ancestral tetrapod reptiles around 300 million years ago. By the Late Permian, about 260 million years ago, these pre-mammals consisted of a group called the Cynodontia.

Today’s mammals are characterized by high ratio of brain to body size, as measured by the encephalization quotient or EQ. The EQs of early cynodonts were nothing to write home about; they were low and ranged from ~0.16 to 0.23. Having relatively little brains, they were sensory dullards: they “possessed low-resolution olfaction, poor vision, insensitive hearing, [and] coarse tactile sensitivity.”

Then, in the Early Jussasic (around 199 million to 175 million years ago), came a tiny proto-mammal called Morganucodon with a chart-busting EQ of ~0.32, almost half again as large as it predecessors. Morganucodon’s most expanded brain areas were the olfactory bulb and the olfactory (or piriform) cortex, areas responsible for integrating and interpreting sensory information from the nose. Along with other modifications, the shape and proportion of Morganucodon’s brain now makes it look more like that of living mammals than its cynodont relatives.

Later, a creature called Hadrocodium arrived on the scene with a second pulse of encephalization. It had an EQ of ~0.5, which puts it squarely within the range of today’s mammals. Again, “expanded olfactory bulbs and olfactory cortex account for most of the increase” in brain size.

The so-called crown Mammalia—the first true mammals—evolved soon after, and were distinguished by further olfactory refinements: “the ethmoid turbinals ossify to form both the cribriform plate and a rigid scaffold in the nasal cavity for epithelium containing the odorant receptor neurons.” In other words, the modern mammalian brain began to take shape. Importantly, the ossified turbinal bones provided a ten-fold increase in available surface area in the nasal cavity—that much more space for olfactory sensory neurons.
“ . . . the brain in the ancestral mammal differed from even its closest extinct relatives specifically in its degree of high-resolution olfaction, as it exploited a world of information dominated to an unprecedented degree by odors and olfaction.”
Timothy Rowe and his colleague believe that the core feature of mammalian evolution—the development of big brains—was led by the nose.

The second study, published in December in Nature Communications, is by paleoanthropologist Markus Bastir at the Spanish National Museum of Natural Sciences, and a group of European collaborators. They used CT scans to create digital 3D models of the skull base of over 100 specimens. These included chimps, modern humans, early human fossils, and fossil skulls from Homo neanderthalensis or Neanderthal man.

Bastir’s team measured the distances between anatomical landmarks in the skulls, and used principal components statistical analysis to characterize the results. They found that modern Homo sapiens are unique in having larger olfactory bulbs and a relatively wider orbitofrontal cortex. The latter is the cortical brain area devoted to analyzing odor information from the nose and olfactory bulbs.

Early proto-humans in the genus Homo split into two lineages. One led to the Neanderthals, the other led to us. Bastir’s results show that our lineage developed bigger olfactory bulbs and olfactory brain areas than our now extinct Neanderthal cousins.

So much for Freud’s silly, pseudo-evolutionary fantasy about olfactory “repression” and the declining importance of the human sense of smell. Precise measurement of actual skulls shows just the opposite. Brain areas supporting olfaction led the expansion of the early mammalian brain, and also increased during our recent evolution away from early hominids and Neanderthal man.

The studies discussed here are “Fossil evidence on origin of the mammalian brain,” by Timothy B. Rowe, Thomas E. Macrini, and Zhe-Xi Luo, published in Science 332:955-957, 2011, and “Evolution of the base of the brain in highly encephalized human species,” by Markus Bastir, Antonio Rosas, Philipp Gunz, Angel Peña-Melian, Giorgio Manzi, Katerina Harvati, Robert Kruszynski, Chris Stringer, and Jean-Jacques Hublin, published in Nature Communications, 2:588, 2011. For useful commentary on Rowe et al., see “Evolving large and complex brains,” by R. Glenn Northcutt, in Science 332:926-927, 2011.