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Sight and the Ancient Senses

For decades, scientists believed humans were not very good at detecting and identifying odors. Our animal ancestors used their noses way more than we do in modern society, says Jessica Freiherr, a neuroscientist at RWTH Aachen University, in Germany, and the author of several studies on the human sense of smell. And our vision overrides the sense of smell in a lot of situations. A study showed that we can distinguish at least 1 trillion different odors — up from previous estimates of a mere 10, Instead, information feeds from the nose to cortical areas to arouse emotions and memories without our awareness.

When it comes to smells, people can be influenced and not realize it. Not so fast. People can tell you when a certain scent is no longer detectable. But each animal has to learn to associate a particular odor with a reward and then do something, like press a button, to let researchers know when they smell it.

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The odors compared between species also have to be the same. That sounds obvious, but while humans have sniffed around 3, different scents for science — out of the trillions possible — the highest number for animals is 81, by spider monkeys. Laska only found solid enough data to compare humans with 17 species, all mammals.

However, human noses held their own. Humans tested as generally more sensitive sniffers than monkeys and rats on a limited range of odors. In fact, humans detected certain scents at lower concentrations than the notoriously top-notch nostrils of mice and pigs. Humans even beat the indomitable dog for at least a handful of scents. These include aromas produced by plants, a logical evolutionary advantage for our ancestors seeking fruits. The majority of the odors in which dogs bested us were the fatty acids, compounds associated with their own meaty prey.

Smell and the Ancient Senses : Mark Bradley - Book2look

Researchers collected body odor samples from 20 male university students. Other students then watched a video of an actual assault by a man on a woman to stir them emotionally , while sniffing a scent they were told was that of the suspect. In reality, it was the scent of one of the 20 male students. Results were quite impressive, though. Every person has a unique scent.

Even trained sniffer dogs have a hard time distinguishing between identical twins, unless the twins are on different diets. It could be from the apocrine sweat glands in the armpits, which produce odorless substances made smelly by skin bacteria. Human scent affects our brain differently than other scents. When we catch a whiff, the areas of the brain responsible for social processing light up, according to a study that used positron emission tomography PET to measure brain function.

When sniffing the sweat of the men told they scored below average, the volunteers were distracted and slower to respond during their own test. A hefty pile of evidence suggests that emotions have a scent. Say you go out to meet a friend who had been watching funny videos on her mobile phone, making her feel happy.

As you approach her, you catch a whiff of her scent and automatically smile.

But had your friend just watched a scary movie, her body odor would have likely made you feel apprehensive. Meanwhile, smelling the body odor of stressed-out people ups our vigilance, while the odor of people who had just watched something disgusting makes our faces twist in disgust. In an experiment published in in the journal Psychological Science , people could tell who showed signs of sickness by their body odor the researchers injected the sweat donors with a toxin that prompted an immune reaction.

From an evolutionary standpoint, smelling sickness or disease has advantages.

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Choosing an unhealthy partner is not the best way to pass on your genes. Yet of maybe even greater gene-spreading significance is the ability to tell differences in MHC — the major histocompatibility complex, a gene family linked to the immune system and body scent. Studies show humans are masters of this skill, too — and thankfully, no urine smelling is necessary. When scientists from the University of Chicago asked a group of women to sniff T-shirts worn for two consecutive nights by different men, the women pinpointed their closest genetic matches — even though there could be millions of unique combinations of MHC genotypes.

Having children with someone with an MHC genotype that is too similar, studies show, can lead to spontaneous abortion or low birth weight. Conversely, pursuing someone with a close or semi-close genetic makeup means preserving adaptations to an environment — think regional people having immunity to local strains of pathogens. Meanwhile, some scents can make us appear more attractive to potential partners. Take the aroma of grapefruit.

In a study that involved guessing the age of women shown in photos, participants knocked off 12 years from actual ages if they smelled, and enjoyed the smell of, grapefruit. If the participants smelled spicy and floral notes, the women appeared four pounds slimmer. Genetic kinship seems to influence smell preference. In one study, people with similar genotypes chose similar perfume ingredients.