Interior: The Morgue. The medical examiner stands over a body on a table. Two grizzled detectives stand nearby, one with a notebook in his hand. The ME pulls back the sheet and her nose wrinkles. She takes a deep sniff; the detectives look at her with confusion. “You don’t smell that?” she asks. “Smell what?” “Bitter almonds. This person was poisoned with cyanide.” My name’s….
The nose knows, but we need to know our noses a little better. Their usefulness is as plain as the nose on your face. And if you think I’ve sniffed out things you never knew you never knew, you’re right on the nose. Noses keep up safe from things like gas leaks and spoiled food; tell us when our personal hygiene game is lacking; filter dust, bacteria, and other detrimental detritus from the air; they’re even the reason that we’re practically the only primate that swims on the regular – our nostrils face downward rather than forward.
So how do invisible qualities in the air turn into sensations in our brains, like fresh bread, cut grass, and dirty diapers. Your ability to smell comes from specialized sensory cells, called olfactory sensory neurons, which are found in a small patch of tissue high inside the nose and connect directly to your brain. Each olfactory neuron has one odor receptor whose job it is to take in microscopic molecules released by substances all around us. Once the neurons detect the molecules, they send messages to your brain. There are more smells in the environment than there are receptors, and any given molecule may stimulate a combination of receptors, creating a unique representation in the brain, what we think of as a particular smell.
They say we eat first with our eyes, but we taste with our nose. Sure, the tongue gets all the glory and the taste buds do their bit, but they can only detect if something is sweet, salty, bitter, sour or umami, a savoriness you find in parmesan, anchovies, and mushrooms. The actual flavor notes come from our sense of smell, with a little help from the other senses. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland and have little or no flavor. Smells reach the olfactory sensory neurons through two pathways. Through the nostrils, as I mentioned, for one and through a channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose. Chewing food releases aromas that follow that second route. If the channel is blocked, such as when your nose is stuffed –hello allergy season– odors can’t reach the sensory cells. As a result, you lose much of the input you need to enjoy a food’s flavor. If you’ve eaten while on a plane –and hopefully someday I’ll be on a flight fancier than the plain Utz chips flights I’ve been on thus far– you probably didn’t enjoy the taste of your food. It’s not that the food itself was bland; it probably had more salt and seasoning than food intended for non-flying consumption. Although the plane’s cabin is pressurized, it’s still less than you would experience at sea level. That lower pressure encourages fluids in your body to move upwards and the nasal cavities swell, decreasing the surface area engaged in making that sallow chicken breast and overcooked broccoli taste better than it looks.
Some people, and they have my sincerest sympathies, are born without an olfactory bulb, the organ that was previously believed to be essential for the perception of smell. About 5% of the population is anosmic, which means that they cannot smell. While doing a bit of brain imaging, as you do, a group of researchers realized that one of their test subjects in the control group *had no apparent olfactory bulb, but somehow they’d scored in the normal range for standardized smell tests. They discovered that 0.6% of all women can smell perfectly well without an olfactory bulb. This rises to 4.3% in left-handed women. I literally don’t know what to make of that information, but it’s a good time to remind everyone that correlation doesn’t equal causation. But only female test subjects had a chance of smelling without an olfactory bulb; the gents were out of luck.
The loss of smell and therefore taste has come up a lot more in the past two years than probably our whole lives put together, as it can be a symptom of covid. It also graphs exactly to the number of calls coming into Yankee Candles’ complaint line, apparently. It’s not uncommon for a virus to get between you and some Vanilla Fields or Clean Cotton, but for some, it can take several *years for their sense of smell to come back, if it comes back at all. Many people develop parosmia, an inability of the brain to properly identify a smell, during the early stages of recovery as the sense of smell works its way back. Smells are badly distorted and twisted into something repulsive, often described as burnt, foul, rotten or sewage-y, especially when tasting coffee, chocolate, and meat, prompting me to inquire, with full dedication to scientific inquiry, well what’s the point of living now? Researchers believe that as the damaged olfactory neurons are slowly regenerated or repaired, the distortions are a result of cross-wiring in the olfactory bulb. Exactly how this happens, though, remains a mystery. Why this happens during pregnancy, I didn’t look. Not really into baby stuff.
But there’s always a silver lining if we look for it and sure enough, there are situations where being anosmic would come in handy. Take space travel, for example. Smells can be a real problem in a space ship or station. You have a finite amount of air and it’s not like you can open a window if chemicals in your experiment are off-gassing or someone rips an eggy fart. The Int’l Space Station is, according to one source, “smelly, noisy, messy, and awash in shed skin cells.” And that’s with NASA being really concerned about smells in space. Every single thing, no matter how small, is rigorously tested to see how they’ll do in potentially hazardous environments. The job falls to a veritable army of professionals at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico and for our purposes today, the Materials Flight Acceptance workforce. The MFA analyzes the space-suitability of different materials to make sure nothing bursts into flames, spews toxic gasses, or do anything else you don’t want to have happen in an awkward submarine falling around the earth, and that includes smells.
NASA is concerned with way more than simple stinkiness. Bad smells are distractions and draw focus from the astronauts’ very expensive missions. But beyond the comfort of astronauts, which is important, “unnecessary smells” need to be kept at a minimum to ensure the astronauts can detect smells they really shouldn’t be smelling, like an ammonia leak or the distinct scent of overheated wiring or circuits, just before they release the magic blue smoke of failure.
“Our first line of detection is our human sense of smell. So even though we have worked with companies, and there are certain types of detectors on board,” says Susana Harper, the Materials Flight Acceptance standards testing manager at White Sands, “in the end we know that the human sense of smell is our most sensitive detector for those hazardous smells.”
Every item on every payload sent to the ISS must pass the smell test. Introducing the odor panel. Five volunteers go bloodhound on everything in the astronaut’s habitable space, but this is NASA so they smell scientifically, not like you or I deciding whether or not we can get one more day out of this pair of jeans. The smell is captured in an air chamber and then injected through a syringe directly into masks worn by the volunteers. They then rank the smells on a scale of 0 to 4; anything that scored 2.5 or higher is grounded.
The panel’s most-decorated member is George Aldrich, a self-titled “nasalnaut.” This chemical specialist has been sniffing around NASA for over 40 years and more than 900 test sessions. Even though he’s done more sessions than anyone else in the world, he still has to qualify for the panel every four months by passing what is called the 10-bottle test. Applicants have to correctly select the three bottles with no smell and correctly identify the seven smells. Like you might get in a knock-off Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, they are musky, minty, floral, etherous, camphoraceous, pungent and putrid. Speaking of musk, anybody remember the perfume Malibu Musk, from the early 90’s? @ me on soc med if it all came flooding back to you. Hell, @ me even if you have no idea what I’m talking about. And never be shy about DMing me; I love to hear from listeners.
You might think you need a big nose to do over 900 space smelling sessions, something in a nice Adrian Brody or Sarah Jessica Parker, but according to Aldrich “size don’t matter.” Aldrich was a member of the NASA fire department at White Sands when his boss told him about the odor panel. “I had no idea,” he says now. “I just thought I was doing something great for the astronauts.” Since then, he and the other members of the odor panel all sorts of materials to work with, including some truly awful bits – apparently Velcro being pulled apart gives off a very unpleasant odor. Pardon me a moment, I’ve just got to go to my sewing table, for science. You’ll get no complaints from Aldrich, though. He’s happy and proud to stick his nose in the astronauts’ business, and they’re happy in return. Aldrich has received the Silver Snoopy award, which is given by astronauts to non-flight support staff who “significantly contributed to the human space flight program to ensure flight safety and mission success.” Silver Snoopy winners get a certificate and a silver lapel pin with the classic comic dog dressed like an astronaut, which has been taken up into space, complete with a letter of authenticity to prove it.
What if you’re in space and you *do have a fully-functional sense of smell? What about space itself? Does space have a smell? It can’t, right? Space is a void, a vacuum, devoid of air. Well roll me in flour and fry for 2-3 minutes on each side, because space *does have a distinct odor. Hold up, you say. How are they smelling space? It’s not like you can do the B-movie sci-fi thing of taking off your helmet 5 minutes in and not die. You would die on the double. While we can’t smell outer space itself, we can smell the things that have come back from space. Space suits, for instance, smell differently after they’ve returned from space than they did before take-off. Astronauts returning from space claim that their suits smell, in a word, burnt. The lingering scent of space is “acrid” and “metallic,” reminding the astronauts of charred meat or welding fumes.
How do you pick up a smell in the vacuum of space? Scientists believe that it could come from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, high-powered particles that are released into space during the nuclear reactions that power stars and supernovae. But ‘tig-welded porterhouse’ isn’t the only aroma space could have. The universe is massive, like, really, really big, filled with as yet uncountable different elements and compounds. Most memorably, the dust cloud at the center of the Milky Way contains large amounts of ethyl formate. Here on Earth, that compound gives raspberries their flavor. And if ethyl formate is created from a reaction between acid and an alcohol, it smells like rum. This would be a terrible tease, because booze isn’t allowed in space. Not for American astronauts, anyway.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even rocket adjacent, to make scratch with your sniffer. You could work with ham! Cinco Jotas, a 142-year old company in south-west Spain, specializes in traditional production methods of acorn-fed Iberian ham. Part of their quality-control protocol requires a team of specially-trained workers who smell every ham before it can be sold, and they could use a break. It’s not that the process is difficult – poke the meat, take a sniff, and make sure the ham cuts mustard in terms of Cinco Jotas high quality expectations. The trouble is the sheer volume of hams to handle. One calador, as they’re called, Manuel Vega Domínguez, who has been doing quality control since 1998, works year-round by himself, smelling around 200 hams -hand-clap emoji- a -hand-clap emoji- day. But as the year wanes close to the Christmas holiday, his ham-load quadruples, as are five seasonal sniffers. Each ham gets four sniffs, for a total of 3,200 sniffs per day. Domínguez says he’s pushed to “the limit of human possibility,” but when duty calls, Domínguez and his nose are there. “I will find a way to sniff 801,” he told WSJ. “Perhaps 802 is possible.”
If your intrigue and appetite are piqued and you’re thinking, Ima get me one of them hams, you might want to check your bank account first. All the expertise, care, and time in creating these Iberian hams means you can pay as much as $1,399 for a 14- to 15-pound bone-in ham. Plus shipping. If that’s too rich for your blood, you can spend a much more reasonable $32.50….for three ounces. Back to the Piggly Wiggly for me then!
If that all’s too posh for you, and I know it’s too posh for me, this next one is considerably more down-market. Armpits. They stink. We want them to stink less. To make products that paliate the PU in your pits, you gotta smell the before and after. Meet Barrie Dewitt, who ironically could afford to buy that Iberian ham, thanks to your sweat stains. Barrie Drewitt is co-owner, COO, and chief scientist of Princeton Consumer Research, as well as their “odor guru.” As testament to the fact that there are no unskilled jobs, Drewitt says. “It took me about a year to get it up to an art form.”
Using a little paper cone like the cups on the side of a water cooler, his job is to sniff armpits, breath, and feet, to rate how malodorous they are on a scale of 1 to 10 – 1 being effectively no smell at all and 10 being ‘call the Hague to convene a tribunal.’
Drewitt flies all over the world to do this for different companies and has become an international connoisseur of bad smells. Bad breath apparently has distinct styles in different parts of the world and not just from the foods we eat – flaming hot cheetos in the US, black pudding in Scotland, and tandoori chicken in India. Expert smell testers must learn to ignore these odors, along with the smells of pets, cigarettes (which is the most obstructive smell) and such like, and focus only on the halitosis caused by bacterial growth in the mouth. Bonus fact: halitosis origin
There are not a lot of professional sniffers working and it’s not because it’s a job no one else. Not everyone has this talent, and Princeton Consumer Research looks for potential odor judges within the ranks of its employees by asking them to smell little jars of synthetic odors. A number of jars are lined up, and the sniffers have to rank them according to how powerful the smell is. If they are successful, they get to do it again, to prove it was skill and not dumb luck, before they can move on to becoming a full-fledged judge. Out of every 10 applicants, only 2-3 will make it through.
Smell test training carries with it some surprising repercussions. “Once you’ve been trained to smell odor, you can’t help judging people. I’ll be sitting on the [subway], judging the people next to me from 1 to 10.” Plus you have to be ready to be asked, repeatedly, if you have a foot or body odor fetish. While he can’t speak for every sniffer, Drewitt says adamantly, “No, actually, I think they’re quite gross, and the smell’s horrendous on some people.”
It’s not all toe jam and bad breath. Smell testers are also called upon to undertake more pleasant tasks too, such as evaluating the smells of scented soaps or perfumes, and picking out the best ones. And the money’s actually pretty good, with salaries starting around the $40,000 mark and going as high as $100,000. Being the owner of the company as well as chief smeller, Drewitt makes about $2mil a year. That’s a lot of scratch. I guess you could call it ‘scratch and sniff.’ [sfx rimshot] I’ll see myself out. There’s a lot of money in deodorants and antiperspirants and big cosmetic companies can see the value in getting a product out there that people really want to buy and repeat-purchase buy. So, a client company might send Princeton Research 10 different strengths and concentrations of deodorant products with a certain active ingredient in them to find which one really does the trick. The company bases millions of dollars of manufacturing and marketing on what Drewitt and his colleagues say.
So how does one register to do this? Go to their website, princetonconsumer.com (not a sponsor), go to the Volunteer section and enter your details, and they’ll contact you if a study comes up in your local area. Fingers crossed for your new career. I look forward to seeing your LinkedIn profile. And a little bonus fact about Dewitt – he and his partner were the first gay couple in the UK to have a child together with the aid of a surrogate in 1999, when they welcomed twins, a daughter they named Saffron and son Aspen. Both men are millionaires, which didn’t hurt the process. Ironically and maddeningly, I could find more articles about Drewitt’s personal life than his professional life — he and his now-ex still live together to raise their five kids, Drewitt’s boyfriend, and Saffron’s ex-boyfriend, who’s dating Drewitt’s ex-husband. There’s no way British papers with the word Daily in their name can resist crap like that.
Have you ever smelled a roast turkey and immediately flashed back to the kids table at your grandma’s house, surrounded by your cousins? Or catch a whiff of Drakar Noir and are forced to confront the mixed bag of memories that was your first boyfriend? Last year, several studies looked closely at the connection between odors and powerful memories. One Northwestern Medicine study, published in Progress in Neurobiology, identified a neural basis for how the brain enables odors to trigger powerful memories. And researchers from the University of California, Irvine, discovered specific types of neurons within the memory center of the brain that are responsible for acquiring new associative memories, i.e., memories triggered by unrelated items, such as an odor.
The stronger emotional memory connection with odor than other sensory experiences appears to be due to the privileged access of the central brain structures of the olfactory system to the limbic system structures—such as the amygdala and hippocampus, which are involved in regulating emotion and emotional memories. A 2010 study published in The American Journal of Psychology found that memories associated with smells were not necessarily more accurate, but tended to be more emotionally evocative.3
Typically the most salient odors are ones that are infrequently experienced, so when they are smelled they have a specific association. “They often are ones that were initially experienced at a younger age,” Dalton says. However, she points out that because everyone’s experience with odor is so idiosyncratic and personal, the actual olfactory trigger can vary enormously from person to person, so I might smell fried foods on a crisp breeze and be transported back to the state fair, but none of my sisters, of which I have five, would have the same memory triggered.
Regardless of why it happens, we can use the connection between smell and memory to our advantage. An exercise that helps anosmics to regain their sense of smell is “smell training”. Researchers believe that systematically exercising the olfactory neurons stimulates growth and repair, much in the same way that physiotherapy promotes injury healing. The technique was pioneered in Germany and involves actively sniffing (and concentrating) on different smells at least twice a day for several months.
In a recent study of older people, smell training was shown not just to improve their olfactory function but also their verbal function and overall wellbeing, demonstrating that smell training is a good way to improve the quality of life in older people. What is remarkable is the fact that the control group was given sudoku puzzles to complete twice a day during the experiment, suggesting that smell training is more effective than sudoku on these measures.
“It’s worth saying that episodic memories, or memories of specific events from a first-person point of view, are where the sense of smell is best connected to memories,” says Theresa L. White, PhD, professor and chair in the department of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. “Odors are not very good in terms of other types of memory. For example, if I gave you seven words to remember and seven smells to remember, there is no question that you’d do better with the list of words.”
White explains that associative memory can work for any sense, and smell is no exception. “Imagine that you always relax in a hot lavender–scented bubble bath at the end of the day,” she says. “You’ll come to associate the smell of lavender with the feeling of relaxation. This means that over time, when you smell lavender and you’re not in the bath, you’ll still have the feeling of relaxation.”
On the topic of lavender, show of hands if you find that smell relaxing. Me, I don’t, but many people do, so it was a flagship scent back in the days when I raised goats and made goatmilk soap and skin care products. Customers would say to me that they wanted lavender because it relaxes you, as if were aerosolized xanax, to which I always shrugged and said I think whatever smell you feel is relaxing, is relaxing. I’ve never really gone in for aromatherapy, but should I? Is it scientifically supportable?
There’s no question that aromatherapy is popular. The market value of essential oils worldwide is expected to grow from around 17 billion U.S. dollars in 2017 to about 27 billion dollars by 2022. Europe accounts for the largest share of the global essential oils market, with the Asia Pacific region and North America tying for second place. But “popular” doesn’t mean “good.” One need only turn on top-40 radio to see that. Does aromatherapy do anything or is it all placebo effect? (Not to take away from the placebo effect and the mind’s incredible ability to change the body, but that’s a topic for another show.) In a word, maybe?
Research on the effectiveness of aromatherapy — the therapeutic use of essential oils extracted from plants — is limited.
However, some studies have shown that aromatherapy might have health benefits, including:
Relief from anxiety and depression
Improved quality of life, particularly for people with chronic health conditions
Smaller studies suggest that aromatherapy with lavender oil may help:
Reduce pain for people with osteoarthritis of the knee
Improve quality of life for people with dementia
Reduce pain for people with kidney stones
Essential oils used in aromatherapy are typically extracted from various parts of plants and then distilled. The highly concentrated oils may be inhaled directly or indirectly or applied to the skin through massage, lotions or bath salts. Some essential oil manufacturers have oils that can be taken internally, but research on the safety and efficacy of this method is extremely limited. Many essential oils have been shown to be safe when used as directed. However, essential oils used in aromatherapy aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and many that are safe for humans can be harmful to our pets, especially cats. Steer clear of wintergreen, oil of sweet birch, citrus oil (d-limonene), pine oils, Ylang Ylang oil, peppermint oil, cinnamon oil, pennyroyal oil, clove oil, eucalyptus oil, and tea tree oil, especially in applications that put them into the air. Your pussy will thank you.
And that’s…. It’s a classic feature of crime dramas and documentaries, the telltale scent of bitter almonds associated with death by a cyanide-containing compound, but as an investigator, you wouldn’t want to go relying on it. The gene needed to detect the odor of cyanide is recessive and carried on the X chromosome, so women are more likely to be able to smell it since we have two X’s.