Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Smells from Beyond


In a series of pre-Halloween posts a decade ago, I examined ghostly smell stories and poems including examples from the Victorian English novelist Wilkie Collins, the 19th century American writer Bret Harte, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, and an English novel (“The Uninvited”) that was made into a movie starring Ray Milland.

I was reminded of them this week when I came across a new study: “Perceptual phenomena associated with spontaneous experiences of after-death communication: Analysis of visual, tactile, auditory and olfactory sensations.”

Have I started dabbling in occultism? Not exactly. The paper appears in Explore: The Journal of Science & Healing, published by Elsevier, which claims to address “the scientific principles behind, and applications of, evidence-based healing practices from a wide variety of sources, including conventional, alternative, and cross-cultural medicine.” Further, “It is an interdisciplinary journal that explores the healing arts, consciousness, spirituality, eco-environmental issues, and basic science as all these fields relate to health.”

OK, then!

So who conducted the study? Here’s the batting order:

Marjorie Woollacott, an emeritus professor of physiology whose focus is motor control.

Chris A. Roe, a professor of psychology at the University of Northampton in the UK who is President of the Society for Psychical Research and whose most recent publication is a chapter titled “Clinical parapsychology: The interface between anomalous experiences and psychological wellbeing.”

Callum E. Cooper, a senior lecturer in psychology at Northampton, who holds two doctorates and whose most recent publication is the entry on “Anal Intercourse” for the Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality.

David Lorimer, Programme Director of something called the Scientific and Medical Network, and an editor and author of many books including Survival? Death as a Transition; he is interviewed in a recent youtube video.

Evelyn Elsaesser, an independent researcher in Switzerland and author of, among other books, On the other side of life: Exploring the phenomenon of the near-death experience.

So what have they delivered?

The study itself consists of a lengthy 194-item online questionnaire that was filled out by 991 people, mostly women (85%) with a median age of 51 years. The olfactory data appear in Table 6. In response to the question “Did you smell a fragrance characteristic of the deceased which made you think he/she was present?” 28% of respondents said yes. Of these, 60% also said yes to the next question: “Did you feel that the deceased was conveying a message to you by way of this fragrance?”

The authors give us an idea of what smells were reported:

“The fragrances typically included aftershave lotion, a typical body scent, perfume or soap, but many odors were noted in the descriptions, including tobacco, food and flowers.”

Smells were the least common sensory impression (28%) reported by people who experienced ADC. The most frequent were tactile (48%), visual (46%), and auditory (44%). While noting that there is considerable variability in the representation of the individual senses in previous studies of ADC, the authors don’t have much to say about the proportions they found.

For what it’s worth, I would point out that the substantially lower incidence of smells compared to sights and sounds is consistent with what’s been reported for sensory impressions in dreams and hallucinations.

The paper is mildly interesting for the cross-sensory tabulations insofar as they relate to smells in phantosmia, dreams, and hallucinations. Whether there is anything else worth pursuing on the topic of after-death communication is, in my opinion, dubious. Interestingly, the funders of the study are publicity-shy:

Funding: This work was supported by a foundation that wishes to remain anonymous. The funding organization had no influence on the final research design, data collection, analysis, interpretation of data, the writing of the report or the decision to submit the article for publication.

UPDATE May 7, 2021

And right on cuespooky new Netflix movie Things Heard & Seen features among other things a smelly ghost.

The study discussed here is “Perceptual phenomena associatedwith spontaneous experiences of after-death communication: Analysis of visual,tactile, auditory and olfactory sensations,” by Marjorie Woollacott, Chris A. Roe, Callum E. Cooper, David Lorimer, and Evelyn Elsaesser, published online in EXPLORE, February 23, 2021.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Keeping Up with the News

I’ve tracked new scientific findings about the human sense of smell for a long time. Rather than just file them away for my own interest, I posted one-sentence summaries of clinically relevant findings to the Disorders of Odor Perception website at I was doing so on a more or less weekly basis until about a year ago when covid hit the fan and disrupted my routine along with everyone else’s.

Over the course of the year, “regular” publications on smell science were overwhelmed by a flood of papers on covid-related smell loss. I tried to keep up with these for while, but it was simply too much to handle and eventually I stopped updating the site.

Recently, when I decided to resume posting new material to Disorders of Odor Perception, it occurred to me that the web design was hopelessly out of date: the site looked OK on laptops, but was barely legible on phone or tablet. So I redesigned the site to make it “responsive”, i.e., it adapts to the device you view it on and is (hopefully!) much easier to read on mobile devices.

As before, new content appears in three categories: Smell Loss (hyposmia and anosmia); Smell Distortion (parosmia, phantosmia, etc.); and News & Reviews.

I also updated the format of the “new content” emails. They now contain direct links to the original source items—no need to go back to website to find them. This ought to make the emails much more user friendly.

If you are a clinician or patient or just interested in the topic of smell disorders, I encourage you to sign up for the email alerts. It’s a painless way to keep up with new work in the field.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Pardon Me, Do You Have Any Mouse Poupon?

Here’s a tasty new offering from researchers at the Centre des Sciences du Goût et de L’Alimentation in Dijon, France: “Male mice and cows perceive human emotional chemosignals: a preliminary study.”

How do you know if a mouse is perceiving chemosignals of human fear? It poops out more fecal pellets.

How do you know if a cow prefers chemosignals from nonstressed humans? It spends more time smelling the bucket that contains them.

How do you obtain these wondrous human chemosignals? The old cotton pads in the underarms gambit. You get some engineering students to abstain from stinky food and perfume for a few days (major sacrifice—this is France, after all) and wear the pads during a regular class (non-stress) and during an exam (stress).

What can I say? I admire the weirdness of the experimental design. I wonder if members of the ethics panel of the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research managed to keep a straight face during the review meeting.

Sidebar: The title of the paper mentions “male mice” and “cows,” when in fact the animals used were male mice and nulliparous female bovines. Shit-kicking American readers would expect “male mice and heifers,” but evidently the heifer vs cow distinction isn’t recognized in the editorial offices of Animal Cognition.

And finally, with apologies to the man from Nantucket:

There once was a heifer from Dijon,
Whose nostrils scientists seized on,
She found it a balm,
When the students smelled calm,
And the researchers gained a citation.

The study discussed here is “Male mice and cows perceive human emotional chemosignals: a preliminary study,” by Alexandra Destrez, Morgane Costes‑Thiré, Anne‑Sophie Viart, Floriane Prost, Bruno Patris and Benoist Schaal, published online in Animal Cognition, April 11, 2021.