From the Archives: Smells

I associate many smells with spring—flowers blooming, strawberries arriving at the farmer’s market, horseradish, matzo, and wine (Passover’s nearly here).

A few days ago, a tweet from @FragrantMoments reminded me of a Cerebrum article from 2001, “Ah, Sweet Skunk! Why We Like or Dislike What We Smell,” by Rachel S. Herz.

Our reactions to smells, writes Herz, are not innate (except, maybe, my aversion to those flowers thanks to the resulting itchy eyes and sneezing):

“We learn the meaning (the connotation) of odors by association. We experience every smell in a context: semantic, social, emotional, physical. That context always has some emotional content, good or bad, albeit sometimes only weakly. The meaning and emotional feel of the context attach to the odor, which thereafter is interpreted according to this first experience—for example the comforting smell of fresh baked bread. Of all our senses, olfaction is especially predisposed to become associated with emotional meaning because of its neuroanatomical relationship with the amygdala-hippocampal complex, critically involved in forming and remembering emotional associations.”

Smells gain meaning very early in life. “Throughout our lifetime we acquire the emotional meaning of odors through experience, but first experiences are pivotal,” writes Herz. “This is why childhood, a time replete with first experiences, is such a training ground for odor learning. The first associations made to an odor are difficult to undo.”

Such experiences encompass cultural differences, and are why Americans may like the smell of wintergreen, associating the smell with candies, while Brits may show an aversion to it, associating it with medicine. Military researchers trying to find a “universally repelling odor” for use in a stink bomb  failed to do so; the only smell, writes Herz, that is “often immediately repelling” is ammonia and other substances that stimulate the trigeminal nerve, provoking “an avoidance response.”

As Herz concludes, “Knowing what smells we like and dislike, and why you and I may not agree on how they smell, comes about because of our specific personal and cultural histories and experiences.”

Also, we posted a story today by Carl Sherman about the link between sense of smell and brain diseases.  

–Johanna Goldberg

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