Magazine article Psychology Today

The Underrated Sense

Magazine article Psychology Today

The Underrated Sense

Article excerpt

(MIND YOUR body)

In defense of smell: It's crucial to love, health, and survival. By Jonah Comstock

NLESS YOU'RE COoking, taking out the trash, or picking flowers, it's easy to forget about your sense of smell. But we rely on it for more than just detecting gas leaks or spoiled milk.

Humans are very accurate sniffers, and we use the information gathered by our noses all the time. In one study at the Monell Center that asked people to identify the source of smells, they were right eight out of nine times. "But when we asked them how confident they were, they said, 'I'm guessing,'" notes researcher Johan Lundstrom.

Even when you don't think you smell anything fishy, your nose knows quite a lot- especially about the people around you. Here are four unexpected talents of this oft-forgotten sense.

1 Recognizing Relatives

In a blind study, subjects were given used T-shirts from family members, a friend, and a stranger. The smells of siblings, fathers, and even close friends could be picked outwithgreater accuracy than chance, but it was the smell of their mothers that participants could identify with almost 90 percent accuracy.

While it makes sense that we might be familiar with the smells of the people we know best, a follow-up study teased apart physical proximity and biological closeness and found that strong genetic ties confer a special olfactory bond, above and beyond mere familiarity. Mothers can easily recognize the smells of their biological children but not their stepchildren, for example, and full siblingsbut not half siblings- can accurately identify each other's odors.

Why? A number of studies in humans and animals have found that everyone's scent carries a unique "odorprint" that contains chemical information about some of our genes. Knowing who is family-and who isn't- gives us a leg up in identifying our kin and precludes the romantic pursuit of siblings and parents.

2 Finding a Mate

"If a woman does not like how a man smells, it is a visceral barrier to being intimate," says Rachel Herz, a Brown University researcher and the author of Scenf of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell. Men pick up on women's smells, too, she notes, but they're more likely to be influenced by a woman's looks than by her scent.

Still, as Herz writes, there's no Brad Pitt of smell. A man may smell really good to some women and bad to others, and there's not much he can do about it. In fact, odor-related biochemistry may be part of sexual chemistry- one clue to the mystery of why some people just click.

The same genetic odorprint that helps us recognize our relatives communicates subtle information aboutthe immune system and plays a role in attraction. …

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