Scents and Sensibility

Ew—this milk smells bad. What do you think?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

You and I are different. We have unique fingerprints, retinal prints, and—surprise—olfactory prints. We just don’t smell things the same way. There are roughly four-hundred different smell receptors, but we don’t all share the same ones. Researchers in Israel wanted to understand whether those variations affect personal perceptions of odor.

So they had people smell twenty-eight items, from strawberries and cheese to manure and burnt rubber. Subjects were then asked to choose from fifty-four adjectives to describe what they smelled: Was a particular odor floral, oily, nutty, masculine? The result was an olfactory fingerprint of each person’s perceptions.

The team says there are lots of potential applications for these results. Olfactory fingerprints could be used to determine whether a transplant patient will reject an organ. Or they could help diagnose diseases that affect the sense of smell, such as Parkinsons.

But I draw the line at smelling compost just to get into my safety-deposit box. Just sayin’.