Janet Sheridan: Our nose knows
October 21, 2011
The next time you watch snowflakes tumble to the ground, think of them as distant relatives.
We humans share a physical trait with the frozen bits of lace: uniqueness. Just as each snowflake has a singular design, each person possesses one-of-a-kind fingerprints — and body odors.
Dragnet taught me about fingerprints years ago, but I didn't know I carried a unique smell until recently. If I can believe my Internet research, no two humans have the same odor, except for identical twins.
Ninety percent of the new mothers studied could distinguish their babies by smell alone within 10 minutes to an hour.
Evidently, children can do the same with cars of the elderly: Joel and I were driving two of our grandchildren home from school, when Walker asked why the cars of old people all smell alike.
"Yeah," Sophia chimed in, "that's right, they do."
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"You mean like our car?" I asked, surprised they'd noticed the senior status we considered early-stage and well disguised. "What does it smell like? "
Walker reassured me, "Oh, it's not good or bad; it just smells, like, you know — old."
Odor experts beyond our grandson report another interesting finding: our sense of taste is approximately 75-percent smell.
If that's true, why do I overdose on bacon? Why don't I just smell it? Why do I crave the taste of cold-smelling ice cream? I'm not tempted to eat my frozen fingers when I ski.
Other researchers confirm that dogs and horses smell fear in humans. I wish they'd conduct the same research on chocolate-smeared children; it could explain why toddlers run straight to me with their runny noses and peanut butter begrimed fingers.
Evidently, smell also triggers involuntary memories that carry more emotion and detail than those we conjure up ourselves.
When I bake bread, I sometimes think about coming home from school to a house filled with its aroma, a self-induced and incomplete memory.
But recently, I unexpectedly caught a whiff of baking bread and became a child again: standing in a patch of kitchen sunlight with newly washed hands, allowed to punch my fists into a huge batch of risen dough, enjoying the smooth stickiness of its collapse.
I laughed, and Mom smiled over at me from the sink.
A smell allowed me to re-experience a happy moment from my childhood.
As with most sensory input, some smells become commonplace and therefore unnoticed, though if we move out of their environment for an extended period of time, we notice them again upon our return.
I remember my surprise when a formerly commonplace smell struck me as extremely disagreeable. It happened when my ninth-grade English teacher had her students write fairy tales and read them to selected classes at nearby Reese Elementary School.
I entered the old building after recess on a snow-dripping day and wrinkled my nose at its offensive odor: "Good grief, how do teachers stand it? This place smells like a zoo."
I recognized the smell, unnoticeable to me during six years of elementary school: the aroma of children bundled in wet wool who ran fast and played hard at recess before returning to their overheated classrooms.
My junior high nose was now accustomed to the more sophisticated smells of Aqua Net hair spray, ditto machine fluid and musty locker rooms.
Researchers say the unique aroma we each possess and smell on one another influences physical attraction and mate selection. A college roommate of mine evidently ignored sensory input when she chose her groom. A few months after her wedding, she told me she couldn't stand her husband's smell; his odor repelled her.
I remember thinking it was too bad she hadn't noticed the problem while they were dating. Perhaps she had a chronic head cold.
One final factoid about smell: another bit of scholarly research determined that women find the smell of cucumber arousing, while the smell of pumpkin pie puts men in the mood.
Please, feel free to use that information any way you wish.