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Sniffing Out the Truth About Smells

The sense of smell is much more than it seems.

By:  |  April 19, 2022  |    756 Words
GettyImages-566061109 smelling flower

(Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Pleasant smells like food cooking in the kitchen and scented candles burning in your home will capture a person’s attention. Likewise, horrid odors like rotting food or smelly feet will do the same. But why do we label some smells good or bad? Why do we enjoy some and despise others? A study by scientists at the University of Oxford might be able to answer some of these questions.

Best and Worst Smells in the World

GettyImages-696036488 peaches

(Photo by Amy Brothers /The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Researchers took 235 people and split them into nine groups. Each group came from a different part of the world and had a unique lifestyle. The scientists wanted to learn if people from different cultures would agree on the best and worst smells, or have different opinions. The groups were asked to label scents as pleasant or unpleasant after taking a whiff.

So what were the most liked and disliked smells? The results showed that most prefer the scent of vanilla and peaches over everything else. Cheese was ranked as the worst smell, followed by soy milk and sweaty feet.

Dr. Arshamian, one of the leading scientists for the study, believes that most, if not all, humans have similar preferences. He feels that as we evolved, we learned how to use our noses to protect ourselves, such as by avoiding smelly spoiled meat or knowing when we need to take a bath.

Sniffing Out Cancer?

You have probably heard of sniffer dogs, but what about sniffer ants? A species of ant known as Formica Fusca can detect the presence of cancer by its smell. In a first-of-its-kind study, a group of scientists was able to train a colony of ants to recognize the odor put off by cancerous cells.

The ants were found to understand how to point out the cancer cells and were trained to do so in less than 30 minutes. Their reward: A delicious sugar solution for every time they successfully found a cancerous cell. Training the ants to sniff out cancer is much cheaper and less time-consuming than teaching dogs.

Making ‘Scents’ of Egyptian History

Who would have thought that chemists and archaeologists could use the sense of smell combined with science to learn more about ancient Egyptian history? As unlikely as it sounds, a team used the aromas within the contents of jars buried with two Egyptians over 3,400 years ago to discover interesting facts about Egypt. The tomb, discovered in 1906, held the mummified bodies of Kha, an architect, and his wife, Merit, along with jars filled with food items meant to nourish their souls forever.

Using a mass spectrometer, the scientists identified the molecules released from the ancient food and discovered beeswax, dried fish, and fruits. Knowing what was in the jars gives insight into burial traditions and culture from the time.

Cecilia Bembibre at University College London commented that “Smell is a relatively unexplored gateway to the … past. It has the potential [to allow] us to experience the past in a more emotional, personal way.”

Using Fragrance to Understand a Painting

sense of smell art painting

Detail from Jan Brueghel’s ‘Sense of Smell’

Jan Brueghel’s 1617 painting, “The Sense of Smell,” awakened its viewer’s olfactory imaginations. The painting of Venus and Cupid, beautiful flowers, a garden, and different animals was created to portray one’s sense of smell. The image was part of a series depicting the five senses – taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound.

The Madrid museum’s senior curator, Alejandro Vergara, had the idea to create scents for museum visitors to inhale while looking at the artwork. He contacted a local perfumer and asked for ten fragrances matching different elements in the painting. The museum then put the perfumes in diffusers, so that visitors could experience both the look and the smell of the painting’s scene.

Gregorio Sula was the perfumer who identified and created the scents for the artwork. Sula said, “Our olfactory memory is stronger than our visual or auditory memory.” According to Sula, we can remember things we have smelled even better than things we have seen or heard, such as “the memory of our mother’s perfume” or “the first day at school with the smell of new pencils and paints.”

It turns out the sense of smell is much more than it seems. What are your favorite scents? Do they remind you of certain memories?

Test your knowledge – take a quiz based on this article!

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