Scent and sensibility: our obsession with odour

| 1st November 2002
We are obsessed with our odour. We slavishly scrub off all that makes us distinct as members of a species, and then spray ourselves liberally with a homogenous fug of the latest mass-marketed musk. Jeremy Smith wonders why

When two members of the Ongee meet, they don’t inquire after each others’ health, but ask instead: ‘How is your nose?’ Living on the Andaman Islands, out in the Indian Ocean, the Ongee universe is defined by smell.

The passing of the year is marked by the scents of differing flowers as they come into bloom, and while a Westerner may touch their chest (the nearest point to the heart) when talking about themselves, the Ongee touch the tips of their noses.

Our desensitised world

In our industrialised world, smell is generally seen as the basest of the senses. Ever since the scientific revolutions of the 18th century, smell has been dismissed as over-emotional and a threat to the ideal of detached, rational thinking. And while we take pride in our rich English vocabulary, when it comes to describing smells the most often used word is ‘smelly’.

A glance at Roget’s Thesaurus reveals not only how sparse our language is when trying to describe smells, but also how weighted it is towards negatives – ‘stink’, ‘reek’, ‘pong’, ‘stale’, ‘rank’ and ‘foul’. Intriguingly, for the positives we rely on the gallic – ‘bouquet’, ‘perfume’, ‘scent’, ‘essence’ and ‘savour’. Today, we are doing our best to deny ourselves this diversity of smell. We can now be crammed into a crowded train on a hot day without being assaulted by information saying ‘friend’, ‘stranger’, ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘safe’, ‘aggressive’, ‘healthy’, ‘sick’.

We have scrubbed and embalmed ourselves to be without identity, and then perfumed ourselves to carry a false one. He is Armani, she is Dior. We are all, if the advertising from Calvin Klein is to be believed, One. Our surroundings are also being scented to manipulate how we perceive them. Supermarkets ‘bake’ (read, ‘reheat’) bread on site. The British Airways business class lounge at Heathrow Airport is infused with the smell of freshly cut grass and the salty odour of the sea.

And following complaints that the later model Rolls-Royces didn’t have the same smell as their forerunners, the car’s coachbuilders developed a chemical solution that would replicate the nasal illusion of driving the world’s most luxurious car. The result – ‘Eau de Rolls-Royce 1965 Silver Cloud’. Though retailers and manufacturers will say they are just providing a more pleasant environment for their customers, research by neurologist Alan Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation suggests something more slick is going on.

In one experiment two identical pairs of Nike shoes were placed in rooms that were also identical. The only difference was that one room was infused with a mixed floral scent. All test subjects inspected the shoes in each room, and then completed a questionnaire about their observations. The consumers preferred, by a margin of 84 per cent, the shoes in the room with the fragrance. Additionally, those consumers who estimated the value of the shoes priced the ‘scented’ shoes an average of $10.33 higher than those in the unscented room. In another experiment conducted in a Las Vegas casino, Hirsch infused one area containing slot machines with a pleasant odour.

The amount of money pumped into the machines over the course of several weekends was compared with what happened at times without the fragrance. The total revenues during the scented weekends were 45.11 per cent higher than during the weekends without scent. Firms have been quick to exploit the money-spinning possibilities of smell. ‘Like atoms in physics or molecules in chemistry, the senses represent the most basic units in the science and art of branding,’ reads a typically overblown line from a pitch by one advertising agency. ‘When the air quality is pleasant, so is the shopping experience,’ says Diotima von Kempski – whose company, DVK, designs scents and ventilation systems for international retail clients. ‘If people feel good, they buy more.’

Losing not one sense, but two

Besides persuading us to part with our money more freely, what effect is manipulating our sense of smell having? Apart from the known toxicity of the many perfumes and fragrances that we liberally douse over ourselves and our surroundings, could there be another less obvious but potentially more significant result?

Scent works at two levels. The olfactory route, directly connected to the brain, is the medium for conscious information. It tells as that the piece of fish is off and allows us to smell the smoke before the flames are licking at our feet. But there is also an unconscious level of information via another less identified route. We receive our subliminal messages via Jacobson’s Organ – a pair of tiny pits located high inside our nostrils.

Jacobson’s Organ has long been associated with such intangibles as sixth sense, instinct and ESP. Discovered by 18th century Danish anatomist Ludwig Jacobson, it responds to odourless substances such as pheromones that convey information about gender, reproduction and dominance to the reptilian brain – our instinctive ‘cognitive fossil’. For most of human history people lived in familiar places with familiar people, and chose their friends, foes and partners from a base of solidly founded information. An abundance of natural smells added to this, contributing to our ‘instinctive’ response – like that of animals – to a person or their mood.

The globalised human race, however, is a highly mobile one. The majority of us spend most of our lives in places other than where we were born, surrounded by people who we have to identify by our judgement alone with no background information to help us. How can we hope to do this successfully, if we lose our sixth sense, our subconscious sense of smell?

Acting on impulse

Two people meet in an air-conditioned restaurant that smells faintly of pine. Their clothes both smell of lemon, their breath of mint, their skin of sandalwood. They inhale from their food as it is put before them. The additives smell good. Nonetheless, the woman finds herself strangely drawn to the man. She wonders if it could be love at first sight. Or is he just wearing Excite, a ‘pheromone sachet’ that biotech company Kiotech International was testing in English clubs a couple of years ago?

It has been said that humanity has three main needs – security, stimulus and identity. What effect on these are we having as we manipulate our most instinctive and discerning sense? We live in an age of insecurity, where we do not trust our neighbour and are unable to smell whether they are friend or foe. We are obsessed by the need for short-term stimulus, drenching ourselves in cheap and toxic perfumes and soaking our anaemic food in artificial smells. And as we scrub away our own natural odours, preferring to smell of Poison or Escape, might we not be losing our sense of identity too?

Jeremy Smith is the deputy editor of The Ecologist.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2002

More from this author