‘The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.’ –Pushkin


Very little research has investigated whether smells really do evoke vivid and emotional memories, more than other sensory cues. What follows is a new, rare attempt. (…)

“It could be argued that a necessary implication of the Proust phenomenon is that odors are more effective triggers of emotional memories than other-modality triggers,” the researchers said. “Under such strong assumptions the results reported here do not confirm the Proust phenomenon. Nonetheless, our findings do extend previous research by demonstrating that odor is a stronger trigger of detailed and arousing memories than music, which has often been held to provide equally powerful triggers as odors.”

{ BPS | Continue reading }

photo { Stephanie Gonot }

Never lose your shadow


Given this importance of the flavors we learn to like, it seems to me remarkable, and unfortunate, that most people are unaware that the flavors are due mostly to the sense of smell and that they arise largely from smells we detect when we are breathing out with food in our mouths. (…)

The role of retronasal smell in flavor was finally put on the map by Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, in an article in 1982. As he phrased it, we need to recognize that smell is not a single sense but rather a dual sense, comprising orthonasal (breathing in) and retronasal (breathing out) senses. He devised experiments to show that the perception of the same odor is actually different depend­ing on which sense is being used. Subjects trained to recognize smells by sniffing them had difficulty recognizing them when they were introduced at the back of the mouth.

{ Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters | Continue reading }

One day you’ll realize that we’re not strangers


Sexual infidelity can be costly to members of both the extra-pair and the paired couple. Thus, detecting infidelity risk is potentially adaptive if it aids in avoiding cuckoldry or loss of parental and relationship investment.

Among men, testosterone is inversely related to voice pitch, relationship and offspring investment, and is positively related to the pursuit of short-term relationships, including extra-pair sex.

Among women, estrogen is positively related to voice pitch, attractiveness, and the likelihood of extra-pair involvement.

Although prior work has demonstrated a positive relationship between men‟s testosterone levels and infidelity, this study is the first to investigate attributions of infidelity as a function of sexual dimorphism in male and female voices.

We found that men attributed high infidelity risk to feminized women‟s voices, but not significantly more often than did women. Women attributed high infidelity risk to masculinized men‟s voices at significantly higher rates than did men. These data suggest that voice pitch is used as an indicator of sexual strategy in addition to underlying mate value.

{ Evolutionary Psychology | Continue reading | PDF }

artwork { Raphaelle Peale, Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception, 1822 }

‘I am the first to have sensed, to have had the flair to scent out, falsehood as falsehood.’ –Nietzsche


{ A surprising new study suggests that people can track a scent across a grassy field–at least if they’re willing to get down on their hands and knees and put their noses to the ground. | Science | full story | Thanks Tim }

So if you sprig poplar you’re bound to twig this


Most people detect a distinct sulfurous odor in their urine shortly after eating asparagus. However, there are some who seemingly do not notice the unpleasant odor.

Up until now, it has been unclear whether this is because these individuals do not produce the odor or because they cannot smell it.

Addressing this mystery from several angles, scientists from the Monell Center first used sophisticated sensory testing techniques to show that both explanations apply: approximately eight percent of the subjects tested did not produce the odorous substance, while six percent were unable to smell the odor. One person both did not produce the odor and was unable to smell it.

{ EurekAlert | Continue reading }

So. While you’re adamant evar. Wrhps.


Odors can be a subtle factor affecting human mating, similar to the behavior of other animals. Monitoring the responses of men after smelling t-shirts worn by ovulating women, non-ovulating women and some not worn at all, they observed reactions and biological changes. This study provides evidence that ovulatory cues are detectable.

{ Sage Insight | Continue reading }

photo { Susan Meiselas }

By all love ever rejected! By hell-fire hot and unsparing!


According to Slashdot and some awesome guy named Big Alan (AKA Alan Hirsch):

… the key to a man’s heart, and other parts, is pumpkin pie. Out of the 40 odors tested in Hirsch’s study, a mixture of lavender and pumpkin pie got the biggest rise out of men ages 18 to 64. That particular fragrance was found to increase penile blood flow by an average of 40%. “Maybe the odors acted to reduce anxiety. By reducing anxiety, it acted to remove inhibitions,” said Hirsch.

{ OmniBrain/ScienceBlogs | Continue reading }

photo { Young Kyu Yoo }

I had four in the morning and a couple of the lunch and three later on, but your saouls to the dhaoul, do ye. Finnk. Fime. Fudd?


When people are anxious they release a chemical signal that’s detectable on a subconscious level by those close to them. That’s the implication of a new study that collected sweat from people as they completed a high-rope obstacle course, and then tested the effect of that sweat on study participants as they played a gambling game.

Katrin Haegler’s team placed the sweat samples inside odourless tea bags which were attached with an elastic band to the underside of the gambling participants’ noses. For comparison, the participants were also exposed to sweat collected from non-anxious riders of an exercise bike.

When exposed to the anxious sweat, the participants took longer to decide over, but were more likely to bet on the highest risk scenarios. (…) In other words, the detection of another person’s anxiety made them more willing to take risks. Quite why this should be remains unclear.

{ BPS | Continue reading }

photo { Gary Lee Boas }

We rollin, whip stolen, AK loaded


Zak gave 4 millilitres of oxytocin or a placebo saline solution to 40 male volunteers in the form of a nasal spray. The volunteers were then shown 16 commercials seeking to curtail smoking, drinking, speeding, and global warming. (…)

Significantly more people who had been given oxytocin donated money than those given saline. They also donated on average 57 per cent more money. The results were presented this week at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego.

Oxytocin is well-known for its role in empathy and trust, though is currently only available on prescription. As a result, at the moment it can’t be used by advertisers to persuade us to feel more favourable towards their product, though many make sure their adverts contain images that evoke bursts of natural oxytocin, such as children and pets, says Zak.

{ NewScientist | Continue reading }

illustration { Jessica Hische }

Catch me swoopin Bentley coupe and switchin lanes


New Yorkers are accustomed to strong odors, but several years ago a new aroma began wafting through the city’s streets, a smell that was more unnerving than the usual offenders (trash, sweat, urine) precisely because it was so delightful: the sweet, unmistakable scent of maple syrup. It was a fickle miasma, though, draping itself over Morningside Heights one afternoon, disappearing for weeks, reemerging in Chelsea for a few passing hours before vanishing again. Fearing a chemical warfare attack, hundreds of New Yorkers reported the smell to authorities. (…) The city quickly determined that the odor was harmless, but the mystery of its origin persisted for four years.

During maple syrup events, as they came to be called, operators at the city’s popular NYC311 call center—set up to field complaints and provide information on school closings and the like—were instructed to reassure callers that they could go about their business as usual.

But then city officials had an idea. Those calls into the 311 line, they realized, weren’t simply queries from an edgy populace. They were clues.

On January 29, 2009, another maple syrup event commenced in northern Manhattan. The first reports triggered a new protocol that routed all complaints to the Office of Emergency Management and Department of Environmental Protection, which took precise location data from each syrup smeller. Within hours, inspectors were taking air quality samples in the affected regions. The reports were tagged by location and mapped against previous complaints. A working group gathered atmospheric data from past syrup events: temperature, humidity, wind direction, velocity.

Seen all together, the data formed a giant arrow aiming at a group of industrial plants in northeastern New Jersey. A quick bit of shoe-leather detective work led the authorities to a flavor compound manufacturer named Frutarom, which had been processing fenugreek seeds on January 29. Fenugreek is a versatile spice used in many cuisines around the world, but in American supermarkets, it’s most commonly found in the products on one shelf—the one where they sell cheap maple-syrup substitutes.

Fifteen months after the Maple Syrup Mystery was solved, mayor Michael Bloomberg paid a visit to the 311 call center. (…) Launched in March 2003, 311 now fields on average more than 50,000 calls a day, offering information about more than 3,600 topics: school closings, recycling rules, homeless shelters, park events, pothole repairs. The service has translators on call to handle some 180 different languages.

{ Wired | Continue reading }

photo { Mark Borthwick }

‘Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men, the other 999 follow women.’ –Groucho Marx


Body odors are important cues used for social and sexual discrimination. As was shown many times, animals can easily smell age-, health- and genetics-related  differences.  Recent study of our large-eyed relatives, ring-tailed lemurs, demonstrate that drugs can alter body scents and change behavior.

Researchers examined changes in endocrine and  semiochemical profiles of sexually mature female lemurs treated with hormonal contraceptives during their breeding season. (…) The conclusion? Contraceptives change chemical ‘signature’, minimizing distinctiveness and genetic fitness cues. No more can the males determine which females are genetically and physically beautiful. All contracepted females lost their individuality and started to smell funny.

{ Olfactics and Olfactory Diagnostics | Continue reading }

Always thinking that just behind some narrow door in all of his favorite bars, men in red woolen shirts are getting incredible kicks from things he’ll never know.


Can a clean smell make you a better person?

That’s the provocative suggestion of a recent study in the journal Psychological Science. A team of researchers found that when people were in a room recently spritzed with a citrus-scented cleanser, they behaved more fairly when playing a classic trust game. In another experiment, the smell of cleanser made subjects more likely to volunteer for a charity.

The findings suggest that simply smelling something clean makes people clean up their behavior - that a smell can provoke a mental leap between cleanliness and morality, making people think differently about the world around them. The authors even suggested that clean smells could be employed as a tool to influence how people act.

The idea that a smell can affect something as complex as ethical behavior seems surprising, not least because smell has long been seen as a “lower” sense, playing on our emotions and instincts while our reason and judgment operate on another plane. But research increasingly shows that smell doesn’t just affect how we feel: It affects how we think, in ways that are just beginning to be understood.

{ The Boston Globe | Continue reading }

One of the works that helps visualize the breakthrough is a painting done in 1961, which consists in a greatly enlarged version of a simple black-and-white advertisement of the kind that appears in side columns and back pages of cheap newspapers. It advertised the services of a plastic surgeon, and showed two profiles of the same woman, before and after an operation on her nose.

{ NY Times | Continue reading }

artwork { Andy Warhol, Before and After, 1961 }