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It develops before any other sense, in the parts of our brains that process memory, fear and desire. It can soothe us, excite us or send us undone. And its loss can make us depressed. And yet, primitive and exquisitely well-developed as our sense of smell is, it’s often sidelined by sight and hearing as essential to navigating the world.
A person might follow their nose but, the story goes, sniffing is an activity better left to cats and dogs.
“It started with Aristotle, who said that odour, olfaction, the sense of smell is the most base of all the senses and doesn’t deserve any attention,” says University of NSW olfactory specialist Dr James Hayes, adding that the Greek philosopher was “an empiricist” who preferred to trust his eyes and ears.
Now, we know better. “It’s associated with our survival in the world,” says Macquarie University olfaction and odour psychologist Dr Mehmet Mahmut. We smell fire and other dangers; and good things, too, from tasty food to tasty people.
Humans have made fragrances too, for millennia, to bring them closer to deities, mask bad smells, attract others. Perfume is not only big business today, it continues to reveal the scents and sensibilities of the times – society’s changing anxieties, fantasies and fetishes.
How does smell work in humans? What do fragrances tell us about us ourselves? And can they help in attracting a mate?
“Are you her type?” A 1937 perfume advertisement in The Illustrated London News, Credit:Getty Images
Rain on bitumen … a basketball court … that childhood game when you scored a slam dunk. A whiff of roses … your grandmother …
The associations can be potent and immediate.
Of all the senses, smell (which is connected to taste) has a direct link to our limbic system, the amygdala and hippocampus, which process emotion and memory. They are connected to the olfactory bulb at the front of the brain, which receives the information in odour molecules when you sniff. Some scientists think smell and emotion are stored as one memory, although how memory is stored in the brain is still being discovered. The information our brain receives from vision, hearing and touch, on the other hand, goes to a relay station, the thalamus, before it reaches the “emotional” parts of the brain.
“The first memories you have are olfactory memories; visual and auditory ones, they happen much, much later,” says Hayes, citing your mother’s milk as an olfactory memory that you probably have stored away.
While our tastebuds recognise five basic qualities – sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami, a savoury or meaty flavour – “odour is everything else,” says Hayes.
“It’s a package deal,” says Professor John Bekkers, an Australian National University olfactory expert. “We all know if you have a blocked nose, everything tastes bland.”
Our tongue receptors are crucial to the broad profile – “you can’t smell umami, sweet, salt and so forth,” says Bekkers – but it’s the smell receptors in our nose that give food its more distinct and complex flavour. A human nose has 400 scent receptors, and people can distinguish about 10,000 scents. When we eat a potato chip, our tastebuds register it’s salty but it’s our nose that “gives you a particular profile of the chip”, says Hayes.
Tastes can trigger memories that transport us too. In Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator enjoys an exquisitely pleasurable memory when he nibbles a madeleine cake.
And certain smells have been known to trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Hayes. In a 2013 US study of people living in areas where waste was dumped, a war veteran who smelled sludge odours reported flashbacks to the smell of burning waste in a war zone. In another study, adults with PTSD from childhood school experiences suffered flashbacks and severe anxiety upon smelling school cleaning materials.
Discerning odours we find unpleasant is “an evolutionary advantage,” says Hayes, noting that most people will turn up their nose at sulphurous smells. “A lot of things that are rotting have hydrogen sulphide,” he says, from eggs gone bad to flatulence.
Even some so-so smells can grow on us, for evolutionary reasons.
“Repeated exposure is associated with liking,” says Mahmut. “Smelling your partner’s body odour is associated with developing feelings of intimacy … It doesn’t matter if you’re smelling unpleasant odours of your partner’s body, that’s not the key. The key is just getting the exposure associated with intimacy.”
He says this helps explain a study concluding that men with no sense of smell have fewer sexual partners than those who do, while non-smelling women tend to feel less secure in relationships. “Our sense of smell is involved in developing feelings or feeling an attachment, a bond to our partners. When you don’t have that ability, it can be associated with insecurities, in terms of longevity, whether it’s going to continue, whether the partner reciprocates the same feelings.”
Loss of smell and taste are now known to be symptoms of COVID-19. The virus that causes the illness damages the cells that support the receptors in the nose and tongue. Alpha and Delta variants reportedly have caused a loss of smell in between 40 and 90 per cent of cases; Omicron in between 5 and 20 per cent. One in 10 people affected by pre-Omicron strains worldwide have reported problems with smell six months after infection.
People can lose their sense of smell for various reasons.
“When you don’t have a sense of smell, you’re missing out,” says Mahmut. “Think about Michael Hutchence not being able to smell his baby’s odour. That’s devastating.” A head injury several years before the INXS frontman’s death robbed him of most of his sense of taste and all of his sense of smell.
British perfumer Jo Malone lost her sense of smell for eight months in 1993 while having chemotherapy. Not being able to smell the necks of her husband and son, nor her favourite perfume ingredients, left her world “drained of colour”. “I wasn’t depressed,” she says. “It was just kind of draining of intensity of emotions.”
A heightened sense of smell, on the other hand, can potentially save lives. Hayes is researching the remarkable case of Joy Milne, a retired nurse who can smell Parkinson’s disease. “She smells people’s sweat glands, and if there’s a musky odour that she characterises as Parkinson’s, she’s about 90 per cent accurate,” he says. Milne, whose rare sensitivity has been likened to a “superpower”, first noticed the “nasty yeast” smell on her husband, Les, years before he was diagnosed with the disease. Researchers in Manchester have identified the molecules on the skin that led to the smell, and hope it can help with early detection.
A painting from Egypt c1390 BC shows women wearing head cones long thought to have been filled with perfumed wax. When the first cones were dug up in 2019, scientists detected no residual scent so could not confirm this theory.Credit:Getty Images
“We are fragile, inconsistent or too consistent,” says French perfumer Serge Lutens. “Perfume can make us feel secure.” The oldest perfumery we know of dates back 4000 years to Cyprus with the discovery in 2007 of little, translucent, alabaster bottles scented with extracts of lavender, bay, rosemary, pine and coriander. The bottles were discovered inside what archaeologists believe was a 3995-square-metre perfume-making factory.
This should be no surprise, given that according to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and desire who was said to hail from Cyrus gave perfume to the lovelorn to make others fall in love with them. It’s from her name we get the word aphrodisiac.
A costume, including beak that could be filled with aromatics, worn by doctors treating the plague. Credit:Getty Images
But humans began cultivating scents to try and control the difficult business of being human long before that. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, believed that divine order or justice was constantly under threat from forces of disorder. As well as wearing fragrant ointments to smell good, they burned scent, in incense form, to guide the dead to the afterlife and to seek favour with gods. “That’s how the name of perfume came about,” says perfume historian Michael Edwards, the founder of online database Fragrances of the World. “Per, which is ‘through’ [in Latin], fumen, which is smoke or fire.” (One rare ancient Egyptian scent called kyphi was made of frankincense, myrrh, mastic, pine resin, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, juniper and mint.)
Sometimes scents have been used to try to keep trouble at bay. When the Black Death ripped through 14th-century Europe, people used pomanders – metal containers packed with cloves, nutmeg and lavender; or oranges, limes or lemons studded with cloves – to ward off the miasmas, or “bad air” that they believed caused the plague.
People also thought bathing opened the pores to this bad air. Queen Elizabeth I, who consequently bathed just twice a year, splashed on rosewater or marjoram to freshen up. Henry VIII dabbed his robes with lavender or orange-flower water or a concoction of musk, ambergris (whale secretion prized for its musky smell), sugar and rosewater.
The first eau de cologne was Aqua Mirabilis, a blend of alcohol and plant essences invented in the late 1600s by Italian apothecary Giovanni Paolo Feminis to cure illness (he was living in Cologne at the time). German perfumer Jean-Marie Farina later turned the concoction into a light perfume that began to be known as “eau de Cologne”. She intended it, she wrote, to smell like “a beautiful spring morning after the rain”.
Advertisement for 9-11 cologne and perfume by German perfumer Johann Maria Farina, 1902.Credit:Getty Images
Fast-forward to the 20th century and fragrances were now fashion statements that continued to reflect the times. The Great Depression and a World War brought with them “extreme” fragrances, says Edwards. Dubbed “the first sex perfume” by perfume bottle expert Jean-Marie Martin-Hattenberg, Schiaparelli’s Shocking, released in 1937, was said to smell of “gousset”, the gusset in women’s underwear. (The mix of ambergris, honey, civet, musk and sandalwood was taken to approximate “the female bouquet”.) Ten years later, Pierre Balmain’s post-war Vent Vert was a “green floral” fragrance “that exploded out of its bottle, like a lawn coming into your skin,” says Edwards.
By the ’70s, in-your-face scents such as Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium – a patchouli-heavy fragrance nearly halted by those accusing it of glorifying drug use – and Halston’s eponymous perfume reflected what novelist Tom Wolfe labelled the “Me” decade. (Sadly, the moment in the Netflix drama Halston in which the scent of his lover’s jockstrap helps inspire his 1975 fragrance, is pure fiction, says Edwards, who worked on the rollouts of three of Halston’s perfumes.)
This century, with the internet ubiquitous, perfume has gotten nostalgic over “old books” with scents such as Bibliothèque and Paperback (which one perfume aficionado reports smelling of “old thick dictionaries … where you occasionally find a silverfish”). Meanwhile, the Nue Co fragrance company associates its woody “anti-stress” fragrance, Forest Lungs – notes of vetiver, pine and bergamot – with the benefits of Japanese forest bathing. And a brand called Vyrao sells five scents said to be fused with “energetic healing” via gems “supercharged by our quantum energist” to “make good feelings”.
As glaciers melt and the globe heats, smells of Iceland have been bottled by the frontman for band Sigur Ros. His fragrance No. 23 references smoke in the air, tarred telephone poles, mowed grass, a beached whale and tobacco leaves … with notes of black pepper and Icelandic Sitka spruce. In Spain, perfumer Ernesto Collado is urging people to go direct, offering “scent tours” of the Catalonian coast to sniff “the sublime that is right here” via wild rosemary bushes and sea fennel.
During the pandemic, the “first fragrance made from air” was launched by New York’s Air Company. Smelling of orange peel, fig leaf and jasmine it is made with carbon dioxide – directly captured or supplied by partners – transformed into ethanol (ethanol being a base commonly used in perfume), reports The New York Times. And Paco Rabanne has released Phantom, in a robot-shaped bottle, an “AI fragrance that is scientifically proven to make the wearer feel increased feelings of sexiness and confidence”. (A molecule called styrallyl acetate “unlock[s]” these feelings, the company says.)
It can’t hurt to attract someone’s attention with an appealing scent, and first impressions can linger. Mahmut says some research suggests that if someone is predisposed to liking our natural body odour, they are likely to find that our preferred perfumes – the ones we think smell good on ourselves – complement or enhance that odour. But be careful which perfume you choose – some people have aversions to certain scents due to negative or just plainly problematic associations.
“It really throws my wife off,” says Hayes, of Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men. He began wearing the scent in high school, when he and his wife were sweethearts, nicking it from his father who still wears it too. “Now, if my dad’s around, and [she smells it on him], she really likes the scent. And it’s reminding her of me. And she’s then seeing my grizzled father … It throws up a lot of questions.” (Tigers like the same scent too, researchers at the Bronx Zoo discovered, attracted by the civetone in the fragrance, a synthetic note that mimics a pheromone secreted by small carnivorous animals.)
A father-scent association prompted Jo Malone to put a stop to her husband wearing one particular popular French fragrance. Her father had worn the scent as he walked out the door of the family’s council estate home in Kent to go gambling. “I said [to my husband], ‘You can’t wear that. It reminds me of my father,’” she says, adding that she nevertheless remembers her dad fondly.
There may also be a simple compatibility factor at play when it comes to potential partners and fragrance. After all, some people just don’t like some smells, for whatever reason. Malone, for example, hates the smell of vanilla. “It makes me angry,” she says. “I feel irritated around it. It’s sweet, sticky … I’ve never liked that stickiness. I can feel the prickles on my neck. And if someone’s wearing something with a really strong vanilla, I feel really irritated with them, even though I don’t know them. I can’t have a conversation with them. It’s that gut, sort of primeval part of me, I suppose. Things like citrus notes make me feel alive; grapefruits, limes, pomelos, also bergamot in some way.”
Whatever your choice of fragrance, moderation is probably key. Hayes gives the example of when someone reeking of aftershave steps into a crowded lift. “Having a strong odour is kind of like flashing a light in somebody’s eyes,” he says. “It’ll kind of startle people.”
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