The Mysterious World of Smell

What can you smell around you right now? Food? Coffee? Copier ink? Soil? Cleaners or chemicals? An office mate’s cologne from twenty feet away? It’s true we apprehend the world primarily through pictures and sound unlike, say, our canine friends. If we lose our sense of sight or hearing, we embark upon a physically, emotionally, and socially challenging journey of adaptation. If we lose our sense of smell, it’s strange and unfortunate, but life goes on pretty much the same as it always did. Nonetheless, smell still pervades our interaction with the world (and each other) in ways we don’t appreciate or even fully understand.

Think for a minute: what are the scents that inhabit your memory? Which smells somehow transport you to another time, place, and (perhaps) emotional state? Is it the smell of saw dust from your father’s workshop, of spices in your grandmother’s kitchen, of backyard “camp” fires in summer, of a perfume worn by your mother or partner? (For me, there’s something about white onions – a vestige from family dinners while I was growing up.) More than simple sight or sound perhaps, smell evokes deep-seated memories with a stunning emotional clarity. A long forgotten scent suddenly wafting in our direction can leave us momentarily disoriented in a poignant revisiting of associated pain or nostalgia. Scents can initiate such powerful recollections that experts are now studying and designing treatment for the smell-related triggers of PTSD.

The biology of smell is multifaceted and, to a surprising extent, unsettled. When we’re exposed to a scent, molecules travel through the nasal passages and either link up with correspondingly shaped receptors (the lock and key theory) or trigger receptors based on their vibrational frequency (swipe card theory). But there’s more. Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, offers a theory (in yet another debate) on why the sense of smell is so emotionally loaded – for better or worse: “One possibility…is that the olfactory cortex has a direct neural link to the hippocampus. In contrast, all of our other senses (sight, touch and hearing) are first processed somewhere else – they go to the thalamus – and only then make their way to our memory center. ” From the memory center, it’s on to the emotional centers in the brain – and the corresponding sentimental fallout.

In the midst of new research, smell remains perhaps the most underappreciated of the senses. Having allegedly “traded” a stronger sniffer for full color vision over the course of later evolution, it’s not the key survival strategy for our species that it is for others. We have far fewer olfactory receptor genes than, say, a mouse (350 and 1100 respectively). To boot, some sixty percent of ours are inactive anyway. Some experts, however, have recently proposed that we’re not so smell-deficient as we think. With an upright posture and the corresponding loss of “filters” animals lower to the ground used, these researchers argue, we got along pretty well with fewer receptors and more advanced retronasal (back of the mouth) olfaction.

Although it might not be the dominant sense, smell appears to be the most resilient. An Australian study showed that olfactory function remains remarkably steady as we age as long as we’re in good health, don’t smoke, and aren’t taking certain medications like those aimed at lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. (Hmmmm….is smell an endangered sense in our medical culture?) In fact, loss of smell is an essential early indicator of neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The nose knows after all.

Beyond the basic biology, however, is a whole realm of behavioral impact. In recent years, marketers have begun exploiting our natural propensity to feel good and stay longer in stores that smell good. (Their definition of good being subjective, I’d add.) Anyone selling a house is advised to bake cookies or pie prior to open houses or showings. A good scent can be enough to inspire us to linger here or there, but what if the scent is so subtle that we don’t even know we’re actually smelling anything?

Much of what we smell operates on a subliminal level. We may not consciously identify or even notice a scent, but it can nonetheless have substantial impact in surprising ways. One study (PDF) suggests that an odor exposure can be enough to shape our opinion of people around us – provided, in fact, we don’t know it’s there. Participants in one study sniffed bottles with extremely faint scents (sweat, lemon, and a neutral scent, specifically). Those who couldn’t consciously perceive a diluted sweat scent in the respective bottles went on to rate the likability of people in photographs less favorably. Those who perceived the scent were able to discount it from their subsequent assessment of the photos.

Then there are the “social chemosignals.” Researchers have recently discovered that humans can “smell” fear sadness in those around them. What’s more is we in turn respond to these subliminal perceptions. The unconscious smell of a woman’s tears reduces a man’s sexual desire and instigates a reduction in testosterone (PDF).

The pheromone question continues to puzzle researchers, but the results suggest there’s plenty of truth to mine. Researchers have tested the impact of 4,16-androstadien-3-one (an androgen steroid) on women’s perception of speed dating partners (PDF). Women thought more of the men they met after having been exposed to androstadienone. (I’m sure someone is working on bottling this now.) Add to this equation the particular hormonal profile of where a woman’s at in the menstrual cycle (or in pregnancy), and you’re suddenly looking at one heck of a richly complicated picture.

In recent years, the birth control pill has come under fire for altering women’s preferences in a partner’s smell. Researchers asked women to select which of ten male body odor samples they preferred both before and after starting hormonal contraception. The majority of Pill users changed their preferences, a phenomenon experts say relates to their artificially altered hormonal state. Although humans, like other mammals, have distinct, genetically set odor identities, the key in these experiments was major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, which play a role in immune response. Experts say women naturally look for partners with different MHC genes than they have, but the Pill changes those preferences to a partner with the same MHC profile.

All of this got me thinking about how much time and money we spend in our contemporary culture masking natural scents in favor of artificially concocted formulas. We spray our rooms and ourselves beyond any natural recognition. Who, can anyone tell me, has ever been attracted to a flower or a pine tree? Does this really set anyone at ease? We take medications that fundamentally alter our biochemical perception of those around us or sabotage our sense of smell altogether. We consider scented deodorants a hygiene product and cologne a fashion accessory. In reality, maybe it’s messing with Sasquatch. We seem to enjoy that enterprise as a whole these days.

Potential moral of the story: we’re more subject to the biochemical subtleties of our evolutionary origins and its selection patterns than we’re often comfortable believing. (This is the case in so much of life, isn’t it?) We discount the complexity of our senses, of our evolutionarily designed physiological fabric. At best, it dampens our experience of life. At worst, it gets us in hot water.

Here’s a modest proposal: how about doing away with the sensory games? Embrace your inner animal, your evolutionary shadow in all its biochemical complexity. Revel in the sensory diversity of past memory and present day. Smell whatever you have blooming in the garden right now. Smell your spouse. Smell your kids. Smell that seasoned roast you have in the oven for dinner tonight. Isn’t life better in full sensory dimension? It’s a Primal thing of course.

Thanks for reading today, folks. Shoot me your thoughts on today’s musings in the comment board. Have a great day.

TAGS:  hormones

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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90 thoughts on “The Mysterious World of Smell”

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  1. I have always thought that I have a stronger sense of smell than most people around me. I almost always smell things before anyone else and many times I’ve walked into a room and identified what highly processed and packaged food product a person had eaten recently (ie, specific type and brand of chips, specific snack, etc…).

    I’ve always been aware of the connection between smells and our emotional states and some smells make me extremely calm while others agitate me.

    I would say one of my favorite smells in the world is hard wood burning. 🙂

  2. Smell and memory connection really fascinates me.

    I lived in Hong Kong for a few years as a young child and our return to the UK involved a journey on the trans-siberian railway and a stay in Moscow. This was during the 1970s and deep in the Communist era. We stayed in a state hotel for several days.

    35 years later I visited a friend in Slovakia and stayed in a hotel (which had clearly been part of their old communist state system!) and the smell (of disinfectant I can only assume) jolted me back those three decades in an instant.

    I ditched the deodrant last summer and rarely use any form of aroma addition and I’m much more aware of my natural musty smell now which I like, Primal eating has certainly made a difference to the aromas I exude.

    1. That is so interesting! I had a similar experience when I returned to Guatemala after several years away. It immediately smelled the same and brought back many memories. Different countries definitely have distinctive smells. Makes me want to travel. 🙂

      1. This is very interesting to me as I begin to plan where I will be traveling for the rest of the year and the next few years.

        I rarely use my sense of smell but am curious to know where “its at.” What can my sense of smell bring me in life? It is amazing how quickly smells can change, lol.

        I wish I had a roast cooking in the oven or I wish I had a dehydrator that was making beef jerky for me.

        I do know that Oxnard, CA smelled extremely refreshing!

      2. In Asimov’s Foundation novels (science fiction from the 1950s), one of the characters remarked that each world (planet) had it’s own distinct and unique smell.

  3. I actually have no sense of smell whatsoever. Whether it is from birth, or something that happened shortly after, I have no memory of ever being able to smell. I do think it has negatively impacted my memory, but only for those memories that might be more loaded with emotion (people and experiences, as opposed to trivia, at which I tend to excel). I am pretty religious about putting unscented deoderant on every day, since I never know if I am getting funky (and not in the James Brown sense), and might be repelling those around me. How I got through 4 years of college without ever discovering a pile of dog poop in my book bag still baffles me; I guess my roommates actually felt genuinely sorry for me, even though I don’t really see it that way. While I would truly love to somehow get (or restore?) my sense of smell, I don’t see it happening: it would be pretty tough to justify the research dollars, for one thing…

    1. Very interesting, Bob… I wonder if your other senses are sharper as a result, much like blind people often have sharper hearing. I also imagine you’re less vulnerable to food addictions as well. Does having no sense of smell help or hinder you in eating properly?

      Intriguingly, you mention a proficiency with emotionally neutral memories such as trivia. I wonder if this is generally true of people with impaired olfaction.

      1. I’ve done some research about this. What most people call taste is better termed “flavor” which encompasses smell, taste, texture, temperature, spiciness, etc. (the entire sensory experience around food). I have always been especially sensitive to the other aspects of flavor, and can’t handle really spicy food (even though I like it), hot beverages (I have to wait longer to let coffee cool than anyone else I know), and texture (I WANT to like carrots, but have trouble getting past the mouth feel). As for my other senses, no luck (though my hearing is pretty good, I had lousy vision until I got LASIK). As far as eating healthy, I have never been too choosy about food, liking almost everything, and am happy that this community endorses steak, bacon, and other tasty things…

    2. So do you feel like you “get” what smell is, conceptually speaking?

      1. Yes and no. I have had friends try to describe it to me, and I can detect ammonia or smelling salts (different nerves apparently), so I think I “get” that what taste is to solids and liquids, smell is to gasses. On the other hand, I love the outdoors, and spend summers working at a camp in Northern Wisconsin. If I somehow could suddenly smell, being surrounded by a pine forest in the middle of nowhere would be one of the first things I would want to do, and I doubt I can really imagine it now.

    3. I have virtually no sense of smell either. I think I lost it around age 13 when I was punched pretty badly in the face. Unfortunately it returns at the most inopportune times. Like when I pass a few old ladies who’ve bathed in Jean Nate’. Most times it’s nonexistent, such that my partner has grabbed something out of my hand I took out of the refrigerator to eat and yelled “Are you crazy, that’s spoiled!”. On the upside, garbage cans, dog poop and a men’s room have no hold on me.

  4. My husband says that my super power is my sense of smell. Thankfully, he always smells good to me!

    I also love the way my kids’ heads smell. And, when they are babies I go around sniffing their little faces subconsciously. It must be their pheremones or something. 😉

    1. I get tiny little highs from the baby pheromones. It’s so weird, but I love it!

      1. I have to agree. There’s nothing more amazing than that sweet baby smell. I used to love inhaling it while nursing my three babies. I also stopped wearing any lotions, colognes or deodorants once I started nursing. I read that it interferes with babies’ ability to identify their mother’s unique smell.

        1. It’s funny but I felt the same way when my dog was a puppy. I used to bury my face in her fur and inhale. Maybe it’s a natural defense mechanism of all “babies”. I still like the way she smells as an adult dog but it doesn’t have the same effect on me.

      2. Interesting. It must be one of those primal-mommy things. As a guy I report that my experience of baby-smell is… “not unpleasant”. Babies definitely have a characteristic smell but to me it’s pretty neutral.

    2. I’m not sure what it is but babies heads do smell amazing. my daughter had her first baby last June and that is one of the things she mentioned.

    3. I remember one day rubbing my babies faces repeatedly with my face. It was a total primal, instinctive thing. I assume it was to ‘mark’ them with my scent.

  5. ‘The unconscious smell of a woman’s tears reduces a man’s sexual desire and instigates a reduction in testosterone.’

    Ah. This explains a lot. 😉

  6. I truly value my sense of smell… It amazes me how smell can trigger emotion, and yet that is the principle behind aromatherapy.

    1. And my favorite smells are the forest, the beach, cinnamon, and vanilla.

  7. Really. For me when a woman cries and I comfort her, I get sort of turned on.


    1. Michael, I agree. Well, I’m not a man, but my ex was always turned on when I cried. I’ve heard this before and it always confused me because I experienced the opposite with my boyfriend. Makes you wonder.

  8. I used to have extreme chemical sensitivity and could not tolerate being around perfumes and air fresheners at all. I’ve noticed since going Primal, I am better able to tolerate these smells. I don’t think these artificial fragrances are healthy, but I’m glad I don’t get so sick from them as I used to. I’d love to be able to improve on this more. Any suggestions? I wonder if anyone else has noticed this?

    1. Very interesting! Your body is more efficient at detoxing since going primal, so perhaps that accounts for it. On the other hand, my aversion to artificial smells has actually increased. Before going primal, I used to eat a lousy diet full of things that make me feel ill today. Perhaps that is the connection.

    2. you’re surely sensitive to those chemical scents, but since allergies are cumulative, you have less to push you to the threshold as a “primalist”. if you have minor food allergies that you just ignore because you like dairy or nightshades or whatever, you might find more sensitivity by giving up those foods.

      1. I believe that must be what is happening. I don’t eat *any* food that I find even a mild allergy to and I’ve been off nightshades the entire time and dairy for over 2 years. I can’t even tolerate ghee. I discovered I was sensitive to nightshades and dairy before I knew what a nightshade or primal was. Going primal helped me clean up the last mile with avoiding seed oils and learning many other small tips.

        And, I used to could only sleep 5 to 7 hours of light sleep. Now I can sleep 8 to 10 hours of deep sleep. Not bad for a post-menopausal 50 year old! 🙂

  9. I enjoy almost all smells, but cologne/perfume is my olfactory nemesis. I’d rather inhale anybody’s unwashed body odor than a headache-inducing miasma of volatile organic compounds.

    Especially awkward is when somebody slathers it all over a public space such as a door handle or stair railing, laying an invisible ambush for the hands of innocent passersby. Anybody have any tips for getting the smell off? I find myself in this predicament all too often, and soap and water doesn’t help much.

    1. They make those stainless steel bars of “soap” for removing the smell of onions. I have no idea how they work, but they do. I’d imagine they work for most smells.

    2. I would use a degreaser of some sort. If you have access to dishsoap, that’s a good one. You can also try an alternate oil to “rinse” your hand. Hope someone has an easier solution!

      1. What about a small tube of alcohol hand sanitizer? Not very primal (and you’re killing off all that good bacteria), but might be effective.

        Or, you know, just go and run your hands through some grass. I find that that gets rid of most smells pretty thoroughly. I wonder if it has something to do with the chlorophyll?

    3. I totally agree… I’d much rather smell BO than the annoying, sickening fragrances that people wear.

      I have a difficult time going to peoples homes because 90% of the time it is wreaking of air freshener. I’m better, but I haven’t put it to a difficult test yet.

      1. Those automated “air freshener” sprayers clog up my sinuses. I think that’s how they actually work: destroying the sense of smell of those getting a whiff of the chemicals.

    4. Thanks for the advice! Anti-onion soap; degreaser; some other oil… I am going to give these a try the next time I find myself tainted, starting with unscented dish soap.

    5. Slathering the part that has cheap fragrance on it with oil (olive, palm, chicken fat, whatever) and wiping it off with paper towels works well. Second, heavy duty dish soap or Simple Green cleaner. Third, something to disrupt the Ph like lemon juice. If it’s really persistent after that, Dead Down Wind brand scent neutralizing spray is my go-to product.

      I became a professional natural perfumer, in part, because I find artificial fragrance materials to be so vile and debilitating. Most people flat out refuse to go completely unscented. I figured I’d try to entice them with beautiful non-toxic and non-offensive alternatives.

    6. Raising dairy goats requires owning buck goats, which are the smelliest animals on the planet. Through trial and error the kids and I have discovered that washing with dishsoap, followed by lemon juice will usually do the trick. If some ‘cover up’ is needed we rub our hands with wet coffee grounds because smelling coffee is better than nast goat!

  10. My favorite “natural” smells are the smell of my mother’s hair, and the smell of the extra blanket I put on my bed. It just says “home” to me. Also love the scent of fresh-cut grass.

  11. Great post.

    Funny- I was on my daily 3 mile walk over lunch, and picked a few lilacs that are in full bloom to put at my desk. To heck with the naysayers who doubt my manliness, haha!

  12. I lost my sense of smell for a few days when I had sinus surgery and also one time when I took some zinc when I had a cold and I had not sence of taste and didn’t even want to eat cause the food had ABSOLUTELY no flavor. I think that even though it may not be considered vital to living, since I did have it happen to me twice, I know for sure it would be detrimental to my life. Lol, I’m a cook by profession and it would be very bad if I could not season the food correctly because I could neither smell nor taste the flavors. Great article!

  13. Sore point for me, lost both my smell and taste last year after a craniotomy.
    Rely more on the texture of food now, cheat more often due to no taste and smell, but working on rectifying that.

  14. “If we lose our sense of smell, it’s strange and unfortunate, but life goes on pretty much the same as it always did.”

    Speaking as someone who lost her sense of smell in high school, this is basically true. Even so, interesting article, thank you!

    For me, it’s like my superpower is Immunity to Horrible Smells (I worked in a pet shop for years so believe me, that helped.)

    Of course it makes me immune to nice smells too… When I was pregnant I could smell a few things again. I was gleefully smelling all sorts of goodies, knowing it could be the last time.

    1. Lost my sense of smell 3 yrs ago due to a chronic sinus infection. My ENT can restore my sense of smell by injecting cyprodex into my sinus cavities, but it only last for a couple weeks. All in all the cyprodex is a net loss.

  15. I know a neo-natal nurse who can alert Dr’s to a sick baby from the way it smells. Often the DR has specifically solicited her to sniff the baby to see if it smells sick to her, or she calls the doc back to re-examine the baby because it smells sick. That’s a gift of smell.

    1. My husband can smell “sick” too. It’s a bacteria infection, not viral. So if any of us smell “sick” when we’re sick, I know it’s worth while to go get antibiotics from the Dr. If we don’t smell “sick” but are sick, I skip the dr’s office, since it’s viral.

      We don’t have a lot of words or discussions of smell, so it’s hard to learn to smell things if people don’t point it out to you. I’ve always loved the smell of coming rain (like it’s not raining now, but the breeze blows and I can smell “rain” coming). My husband thought I was crazy the first time I mentioned it, but after pointing out when I could smell rain, he’s learned to recognize it. However, I have not learned to smell “sick”, I think I don’t have the receptor.

      1. I have the ability to smell “sick” too! I’m so glad to find out I’m not the only one. I’ve brought it up a few times and everyone I know thinks I’m making it up.

  16. According to Fast Food Nation, the aroma of a food can be responsible for as much as 90% of it’s taste.

    So for those of you who are saying that you have a weaker sense of smell, have you noticed food to taste more bland than you’d expect?

    I’ve always had a very good sense of smell. I wonder what causes someone’s sense of smell to be stronger/weaker…

    1. Well, they’d hardly know what things are “supposed” to taste like, would they, if they’ve always been olfactorily impaired?

      Although I have always noticed that food tastes bland when I have a sinus infection.

      1. Some people lose their sense of smell somewhere along the way, not necessarily right at birth..

        Plus if you’re eating the same thing as someone else, and they’re exclaiming how strong it tastes, and you’re finding it bland, then that could be an indicator of your sense of smell rather than your tastebuds..

    2. I didn’t notice things tasting different after losing my sense of smell. However, I always used to be a very picky eater and since then I’ve vastly expanded my repertoire. So perhaps a lack of smellage helped me in that regard!

  17. I can’t stop sniffing my 3 month old. The top of her head, it smells so good. I don’t use baby shampoo on her.
    My husband doesn’t understand why, when he forgets to put on deodorant and works up a light sweat, I get all excited.
    Any time I touch almost anything, I have to sniff it. Even if I know it’s probably a bad smell.
    I can tell you what many of my neighbors are making for dinner by just walking by their houses. And there’s a certain type of wood that when burned, takes me away.
    I would rather lose my sight or hearing than my sense of smell/taste.
    I must have been a dog in a past life 😉

  18. On the subject of Androstadienone it has already been bottled – unfortunately the use of the chemical with a scent (cologne) is currently patented so you can only get it in one place (I think the name of the cologne is Realm)

    Also it can cause decreased energy (depression) like effects in men exposed to the pheromone.

    There are a ton of suppliers selling pheromone based colognes on the internet, some with very large discussion forums and a devoted user base – I’ve tried one supplier and the product really did seem to have an effect.

  19. My husband lost his sense of smell two years ago after an unusually debilitating viral infection. Prior to this, he had a very sensitive nose and would walk into our home and immediately open the windows if I were cooking something with a strong aroma. I miss him being able to smell.
    He claims not to really miss it that much although he does acknowledge that food tastes more bland. His appetite is the same but I do notice him dousing his food in hot sauce or lime juice. When people ask him about not being able to smell, he jokes that diaper duty isn’t that offensive anymore! I have, however, walked into the house after a few hours away to find our daughter sitting right on her daddy’s lap, reeking of poop!

  20. “Who has ever been attracted to a pine tree?”

    ME ! 🙂

    Not physically, but emotionally, because I grew up at the border of a national forest with lots of pine trees.
    Now I’m in the States and miss the forest terribly…but nothing produced artifically comes close to the natural smell of pine.

  21. Seven years ago when my husband was undergoing chemotherapy for Non-Hodgkins Lymphona, he lost his scent completely. The oncologist had never heard of that side effect before. Thankfully, he is healthy and delicious smelling once again.

  22. years ago i damaged my sense of smell, cleaning dog kennels with a bleach solution. i’ve noticed, though, that the paleo/primal alterations i’ve made in my lifestyle have caused it to improve, just like the ringing in my ears. 😀

    1. I want to add my $0.02 to the people who are complaining about the obnoxious scents people wear. I shower every day and I use a deodorant stone, which is completely unscented. All it does is neutralize the more obnoxious armpit stink, without interfering with or masking my natural, normal scent. I don’t understand why anyone would want to do more than that, but every day I walk past someone who is practically drowning in a sea of cheap perfume. It makes me feel like puking. Ugh.

      Especially women who wear those baby-powder smelling scents. Mostly older women. PLEASE STOP. Everyone can smell you from 30 feet away, and not in a good way. It’s almost as bad as smokers.

      Over the last few years I have gotten so used to my house, myself and my fiancee not being covered in artificial scents, and being calm and quiet that I can barely even handle having to go into a mall or other popular venue. The scents, sounds and sights of so much buzzing, pointless commercial activity is overwhelming and actually makes me feel disoriented and sick after a while.

      1. I agree with you totally! I can’t handle the mall anymore and try and make any necessary shopping trips as short as possible! I mainly shop at small thrift stores for my clothes because the atmosphere is nicer and I believe in reusing.

  23. I always wonder what kind of “chemicals”
    we are inhaling when it comes to those smells from perfumes-air sprays -aftershaves-laundry soaps…some of which you cant the woman or man on the airplane who just has to lay it on thick before the flight and you have to breathe it..if its a non-smoking about non perfumes too..
    GROK- ing along

    1. Hello! Non perfume flights would be great for those of us with allergies. I really don’t think breathing in those chemicals can be good for any of us.

    2. I can tell you exactly what chemicals are in there: phthalates. Yes, weird, hormone-disrupting plastics. Anytime you see the word “fragrance” on a label—even if it’s an all-natural or organic product—means it probably has them.

      This is a really important point about these fragrances. I doubt they’re harmful to innocent bystanders, but they definitely can be absorbed through skin.

  24. My favorite smell is probably rain coming or the pine smell in the white mountains. The smell that brings back the most vivid memories is our garden shed, it smells just like my great grandfathers garage. it had a dirt floor and was full of farm equipment. the shed has that same combo of dirt, metal and oil.

  25. I couldn’t smell anything but the most pungent odors for many years and always attributed it to that fact that I partied way too much back in the 80s (if you know what I mean) and that I also had been diagnosed with “non-specific rhinitis”. I took Flonase every day, which kept the stuffiness in check, but I couldn’t smell a thing. Then early this year I discovered Paleo/Primal/Archevore nutrition and eliminated grains and sugars from my diet. Within a week I came home from work one day and was greeted by the wonderful smell of the dinner my wife was making. I haven’t had gluten grains since and am delighted that I can smeel again, along with dropping over 25 lbs almost effortlessly.

    1. This is so awesome! All my life I could only breathe out of one nostril and had various sinus problems all the time. Since I went primal, within about 2-3 weeks of going full Primal, I could (and still can) breathe out of both nostrils and haven’t had sinus issues since. Nor have I had to take antihistamines (which was a constant before). So glad to see someone else with a similar experience!

  26. I smelled my spouse last weekend after we got done moving and hadn’t showered in three days =) Seriously, yet another great post and all of this information is thoroughly interesting! My favorite smells from childhood are the garden dirt, especially just after a rain; the smell of hay after a day of baling; baked bread (though I don’t eat it now I still love the smell!); wood smoke from our wood stove; misc. food smells in the house because my mom was always cooking something great…

  27. I remember coming off a five day backpacking trip in Yosemite where we hadn’t seen many people until we descended into the valley, and the smells of deodorant, fabric softener, sunscreen, even lip gloss were sickening. Ever since, I’ve tried to use unscented everything. Also helped my sensitive skin. 🙂

    Everyone’s talking about good smelling babies. One day a week, my toddler daughter goes with a nanny for a morning, and when she gets back, she’s COVERED in perfume. I always have this reaction like I want to bathe her and change her clothes right away!

    I wish people understood that it’s not enhancing anything. If the aim is romantic, why would anyone want to taste perfume or cucumber-pineapple-waterfall-heavenly-vanilla-musk lotion on someone’s skin?

  28. Smells and the association to memories and even emotions is quite fascinating. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now (now and then the past years). It’s amazing the way even the slightest scent can send you along memory lane.

    I remember passing by a girl with the same scent (parfume though) that an old ex-girlfriend of mine had. Even though it was almost 7 years ago, it just hit me like a wall.

    It also works the other way around. A memory can easy recollect the smell and even the same emotional state as you were in when you had the experience itself.

  29. How prescient this whole conversation is. Yesterday, I was trying to explain to a friend that I can detect when pollen counts are high due to pollen’s very distinct odor. He was baffled. I’ve had similar reactions when telling others this.

    However, those with an allergy to pollen (like mine) have told me that they know the exact smell too. It kind of smells like blooming flowers… to the nth degree!

    The smell isn’t offensive, but it is very very strong. So much so that I can smell it even if I awake in the morning, and all my windows are closed (Maybe the pollens is getting in through small spaces in my window sills).

  30. I always thought i had a strong sense of smell. I actually relate smell to people or seasons. Even peoples homes have certain smells that I feel only that family has. I think if I was blindfolded I could probably figure out whose place I was at just by the smell of it. is that wierd?

  31. I had a Korean roomate in college. One day we were talking about the grad students from all over the world, and their various “cultural” smells: curry from the Indians; soy and fish from the Southeast Asians; kimchee from the Koreans; etc. I asked him what us North Americans smelled like to him…..Sour Milk! It’s all relative, eh?

    1. Over the years, I have heard Indian friends mention (very quietly) that a lot of English people smelt of sour milk. I never really quite understood what they meant until I had an English boyfriend a few years ago — and yes, the smell was really noticeable, and it was like milk that was just “on the turn”.

      However, I am pretty convinced it is a diet thing, as I was born and brought up in England, my father is English, and I don’t smell of sour milk at all (apparently, I smell of garlic ;-)). It is what you eat.

      The boyfriend in question ate a typical Northern British diet that was very stodgy and unspiced — plain meat pies, mashed potato etc, plain English sausages, no garlic or spices and few herbs, and I think this is what creates the “smell”.

  32. Since having fibromyalgia, my sense of smell has become hypersensitive. Its not necessarily a good thing. I can smell all sorts of things other people can’t – until the smell gets stronger. Everywhere I go has really strong smells, though not all bad. And with the windows shut I can smell someone with BO walking past the house, or someone down the street smoking.

    Although it has been good in some ways – I can smell infection in my cat, when he’s been fighting and had a bite, this has saved vet visits as I’ve been able to identify and treat the area with antibacterial wash before the infection needed antibiotics. I also won’t eat some food because it smells bad to me (but no one else), but food that my cat refuses, also smells bad to me.

    I’ve come to trust this heightened sense of smell and rely on it, however difficult it is to be hypersensitive to every smell.

    Wow I must sound like a real weirdo!

  33. After a couple of months of PB I’m sure I noticed a sharper sense of smell – unfortunately that meant tackling some jobs around the house I’d been happy to put off before !

    Not that it’s relevant, but my eyesight is definitely sharper too and I’m much less dependent on glasses. Whether this is PB-related or not I wouldn’t like to speculate, but at 63 not what I was expecting !

  34. While I mostly agree with your article, Mark, I think you miss a valid point in your hurry to condemn modern perfumery. Yes, some people take their “environmental olfactory enrichment” too far — at the expense of everyone else’s nose — but perfumes dont mask a person’s natural scent. If they did, all fragrances would smell identical on a person as they do in the bottle. While most department-store perfumes attempt to prevent their volatile oils from morphing by using various chemical fixers, there is still subtle changes that occur as soon as those oils touch skin and begin to interact with the body’s chemistry.

    So you say that scent masks a body’s natural odor; I say it enhances it. Either way, I still think my fiancé smells good.

  35. I have no sense of smell, a side effect of some brain surgery I had a couple of years ago. It was only when it was gone that I realised how much information I got from it. It’s very easy to take something for granted when you don’t even realise how much it’s impacting you!

  36. I am very sensitive to smell and for a very long time, artificial smells made me quite ill with an asthma-like response. My chest used to hurt all the time. Roughly a year after removing all wheat and gluten from my diet, the painful reaction subsided. I still don’t like artificial scent. But I adore the smell of babies and freshly showered or freshly sweating men!

  37. ”If we lose our sense of sight or hearing, we embark upon a physically, emotionally, and socially challenging journey of adaptation. If we lose our sense of smell, it’s strange and unfortunate, but life goes on pretty much the same as it always did.”

    That’s not true at all.

    Blind and deaf people have a super developped olfactive system that allow them to have ”blind vision”.

    Olfaction is probably the oldest and most primitive sensory system. Most species rely on olfaction heavily including humans. People just don’t want to admit that their olfactive neurons control them.

    1. I agree. When my eyes were bandaged I didn’t feel as “out of touch” as when my sense of smell was blocked from a bad cold.

      Smell tells me a lot that other senses don’t, and it lets me know what’s going on farther away, hidden from view, or around a corner. When I cannot see or hear it yet I can usually smell it.

      A man lacking apocrine gland expression (there are people with little to zero apocrine glands) will not turn me on, no matter how much I like him emotionally or intellectually. It’s like my sexual response is dead without smell.

  38. Very interesting – its bound to have some consequences for offspring(children) when women choose their partners differently than they would naturally.

  39. The reason people are so wrapped up in masking their smells is because they stink! God, I hope they keep wearing the colognes and industrial strength deodorants until they change their diets and finally start to smell like human beings again! It’s less of an obsession than a necessity these days.

    1. Odor blocking helps somewhat with bad BO.

      But industrial strength artificial fragrance doesn’t mask the smell of bad BO or detox BO The liver enzyme stench just wafts beyond the Axe body spray and makes a worse combination than the stench alone. Just like breath mints don’t hide foul breath.

      It’s like spraying Lysol in a bathroom after taking a dump, and not opening a window or turning on a fan. You can still smell the sh*t, with the Lysol layered on top of it.

  40. Great article! People cant believe how when i smell cigarrettes or a machine shop it is almost a comfort smell as it takes me instantly to remember people i love. my dad owned a machine shop & my mom, dad, sister & husband all smoked. also, the smell of a horse barn which takes me back to when my mom & i had horses. However i still dont understand why some people love the smell and taste of garlic and i hate it. anyway, thanks for the information; i never new how complex it was! di b.