The Magazine

The Nose Knows

A brief for the sense that gets no respect.

Oct 8, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 04 • By EMILY YOFFE
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The emotions of scent are not just tied up in memory, but in mating. Herz presents interesting research about how our own body odor, unique as a fingerprint, is a powerful tool in attracting or repelling a sexual partner. She cites evidence that, despite our bathed and deodorized society, we still release enough molecules for women to judge the suitability of a man by his aroma. Our body odor is a manifestation of our immune systems, and what women find most delicious are men with immune systems complementary to theirs--thus less likely to share the same deleterious genetic traits. Herz does concede that the visual tends to trump the olfactory for men.

In a discussion sure to enrage many, she says odor-induced illness, known as multiple chemical sensitivities syndrome, or MCS, in which the sufferer becomes weak, nauseated, and dizzy when exposed to the offending scent or scents, is probably nothing more than a conditioned psychological response to a belief the perfume or "sick building" is making one sick. She also says that getting aromatherapy may be lovely and relaxing, but the scents inhaled have no physiological benefit. The good feelings induced are the result of believing in the therapy.

While The Scent of Desire didn't convince me that humans are wrong to think of the sense of smell as a lesser sense than sight or hearing, it is, like any one-subject volume, filled with intriguing bits of information. We all have known couples who have struggled with infertility, adopted a baby, and then the wife has found herself pregnant. Herz gives a reason for this phenomenon: "Baby sweat/body odor can increase a woman's fertility .  .  . Baby scent begets babies." It's also the case that we must literally wake up to smell the coffee; our sense of smell is turned off during sleep.

Herz acknowledges scents are enigmatic, ephemeral, and hard to describe. But she tells you probably as much as you would want to know about them, unless you are a beagle.

Emily Yoffe is the author, most recently, of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.