“A beguiling account of the critical role smell plays in our lives.”
—Kirkus, starred review
WHAT THE NOSE KNOWS
The Science of Scent in Everyday Life
by Avery Gilbert
Big thinkers from Sigmund Freud to astronomer and pop- science icon Carl Sagan have dismissed the human sense of smell as a feeble vestige of evolution. The pioneer sexologist Havelock Ellis went so far as to say that “if the sense of smell were abolished altogether, the life of mankind would continue as before, with little or no sensible modification.” In WHAT THE NOSE KNOWS: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (Crown; Publication date: July 1, 2008), smell scientist and psychologist Avery Gilbert demonstrates just how wrong these critics are; the sense of smell is every bit as essential as our vision or hearing—and it might even be more important.
From the physiology of our noses, to the mechanics of our brains, to the subtleties of our cultural preferences, Gilbert guides readers through a wide-ranging exploration of one of the least-respected senses—and proves that we rely on our sense of smell more than we realize. Smell makes a far greater contribution to flavor and the enjoyment of food, for example, than the sense of taste. Flavor is actually a sophisticated fusion of (simple) taste and (complex) smell. Aromas released from food in the mouth reach the nasal passages via the back of the throat, and are exhaled through the nostrils. Pinch the nostrils and flavor disappears—what’s left is bland texture.
Most would assume our sense of smell is far inferior to that of animals. Yet recent experiments show that the sensitivity of the human nose is on a par with that of monkeys and apes, and even, in some circumstances, with that of dogs. In an unusual behavioral experiment, people wore blindfolds and earplugs and had to follow a scent trail on their hands and knees. Many of them were able to do it, and with practice they did even better!
Beyond the natural world of smell is the unnatural. With fewer than nine hundred chemicals, scientists can re-create virtually any smell in the world. A cup of coffee or a bouquet of roses, for example, only require twenty different molecules to create their characteristic scents. Using this technology, retailers can craft scents that capture the “spirit” and “mood” of their stores to lure customers. Electronics giant Samsung uses a corporate logo scent in its flagship store, and Westin Hotels use a signature “White Tea” composition in their lobbies. This form of olfactory marketing seeks to subliminally influence shoppers, and Samsung and Westin Hotels are not the only companies trying to lead their customers by the nose. Gilbert describes the case of a music company who requested an ink for their packaging that would smell like marijuana. The client ultimately dropped the project once it realized it could get sued should drug-sniffing dogs and angry parents find the rendition too accurate.
Gilbert describes the science of smell, contrasts it with conventional wisdom, and plays it back against trends in popular culture to reveal odd connections and unanticipated consequences. The result is WHAT THE NOSE KNOWS—a scientific yet playful, provocative yet entertaining journey through the intoxicating world of scent.
About the Author
Avery N. Gilbert, a smell scientist and entrepreneur, is at the forefront of commercial innovation in the fragrance industry. He created the sensory psychology research group of a major international fragrance company, founded three olfactory-related startup companies, and serves as an advisor to two others. He has helped bring to market scented products from luxury perfumes to kitty litter. With an MA in biology and a PhD in psychology, Gilbert’s scientific focus is evolutionary biopsychology. Following an NIH postdoctoral fellowship, he joined the faculty of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and coauthored the National Geographic Smell Survey—the largest participatory experiment of its kind. He has published many groundbreaking scientific papers in the psychology of odor perception. This is his first book.
WHAT THE NOSE KNOWS
The Science of Scent in Everyday Life
by Avery Gilbert
Crown Publishers • Publication date: July 1, 2008
ISBN 978-1-4000-8234-6 • 304 pages • Price: $23.95
Did You Know?
Intriguing factoids from What the Nose Knows by Avery Gilbert
Former Playboy Bunny Izabella St. James gags whenever she smells baby oil because she developed a learned odor aversion to it during her stint at the Playboy Mansion.
No matter how many smells there are in a complex odor, people can identify at most only three or four of them.
Studies prove that mothers really do believe that their own babies’ poop smells less bad than other babies’ poop.
The average police officer cannot detect the smell of fresh marijuana plants from outside a grow house.
Oysters, tomato paste, spoiled chicken, and pinto-bean farts all have the stinky molecule dimethyl sulfide in common.
Humans can smell only sixteen of the more than four hundred volatile chemicals that occur naturally in tomatoes.
Complex natural food smells can be re-created accurately with only a couple of dozen different molecules. Such simplified formulas—called “aroma models”—have been made for French fries, Swiss cheese, and olive oil, among other things.
When it comes to detecting odors, new evidence suggests that people are often as good as dogs.
It’s possible to convince people of a smell in the air, even when there is none.
We smell food in our mouth from the back of our throat, and odors in the outside world through our nostrils. These different physical pathways have different psychological properties. For example, flavors in the mouth become associated with odors in the mouth, but not with odors in the outside world.
Every cultural cuisine in the world can be made from a single collection of about two dozen spices.
There is a biological basis to differences in spice use across cultures. Spice use is greater in hotter climates, for example, because the essential oils in spices have antibacterial properties that help prevent food from spoiling.
Sniffing coffee beans does not “refresh” the nose after prolonged smelling.
A single traumatic event can turn a smell into a condition cue for mental and physical distress. Body recovery teams at disasters sites have learned this the hard way.
Walt Disney seriously considered using smells in theaters during showings of Fantasia. He had even selected smells for different scenes.
Our minds can respond to smells that are too weak to be noticed consciously. It’s called subliminal odor perception.
Marketers and advertisers often use scent in an effort to influence consumers.
Many museums are using smells to bring a new dimension to their exhibits.
We are in danger of losing culturally meaningful smells. Who remembers what Wite-Out and ditto ink smell like? The author Lewis Thomas regretted that several generations of kids have never smelled burning leaves, which used to signal the end of autumn.
Biotechnology and gene transfer can restore smells to scentless flower varieties and give more flavor to boring hothouse tomatoes.
photograph credit by Kunio Yamazaki
The Magazine is honored to interview Dr. Avery Gilbert, author of the outstanding new book "What The Nose Knows". He talks to us about blogs, Givaudan, his amazing journey and the world of smell-
I found your book to be a fascinating and wickedly wonderful romp through almost every topic of our nose-but what I loved most were all the fragrant references to our culture and popular culture. Who knew that “composer Richard Wagner was a fragrance freak” or that “Emily Dickinson was a fragrance vampire who tortured the perfume out of flowers”? Fabulous read and right up my alley. It was great fun to read “Hollywood Psychophysics” and the chapter titled “The Art of The Sniff” was thought provoking as well. “Zombies at the Mall” had me laughing at loud and rejoicing that finally, someone wrote such a witty book about smell and fragrant references without being overly technical and boring us to tears. You must have collected all of this information for years and I am so happy that you placed it all in this wonderful and enlightening book. How long was the process of collecting all of the information?
It took the better part of three years to write; it was a labor of love. I discovered more strange and fascinating material than I could possibly use. But I like how the book turned out and I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it.
Tell us something about smell or fragrance that you had to leave out of your book-anything fascinating to add since your book came out?
I left out an entire section on smell in sleep and dreams, and the world of aroma alarm clocks.
Dr. Gilbert, you are an olfaction expert and a scientist, so you must have had a passion for some time in creating your new book. How exactly did you come to write “What the Nose Knows”?
It started with a colorful review I wrote of Chandler Burr’s book “The Emperor of Scent.” It was probably the first time anyone had quoted a Beach Boys lyric in the pages of Nature Neuroscience. Scientists pay little attention to book reviews. So I was surprised when two weeks later, at a smell and taste conference, colleague after colleague came up to congratulate me and say how much they enjoyed the review. More than a few suggested I write my own book. And I thought: why not? With the help of a very fine agent—Michelle Tessler—and a superb editor—Lucinda Bartley—the result was “What the Nose Knows.”
You also manage Synesthetics, Inc., a company that provides innovative, multisensory research for the development and marketing of consumer products. Please tell us about this work and the fragrance side of it.
I basically help my clients get in touch with consumer perceptions of scent. Sometimes it’s matching the fragrance to the right color of packaging, sometimes it’s finding a scent to match a particular mood. One of my favorite projects was for Riviera Concepts which had a portfolio of designer scents like Bob Mackie, Cynthia Rowley, and Alfred Sung. I created an interactive countertop display that recommended a scent to the shopper based on her choice of color, fabric texture, and shape (the hand-feel of small objects). It was a fun in-store experience, it was science-based, and it helped guide people to fragrances. What could be better?
You have worked with many companies in the fragrance industry. What is your sense of where the industry is today and where it is headed?
We should be making it easier for people to explore fragrances and find suitable ones. There’s a million brands out there and it’s tough navigating through them all. Perfumers and brand managers don’t always know how to communicate with the consumer. In the book I explain how industry speaks in two voices: Ingredient Voice (long lists of raw materials) and Imagery Voice (atmospherics and abstractions). Neither one gives you a sense of what the fragrance really smells like.
This is why I believe the rise of perfume blogs and communities like Sniffapalooza is so important. They reflect how fragrance wearers in the real world think and talk, and how they decide what to buy and wear. This is why I’d trust the honest, heartfelt opinion of any Sniffapalooza member way more than the gaseous stylings of the insufferable Luca Turin.
You also serve as the Chief Scientist for the Scent Marketing Institute. What does that involve?
Harald Vogt founded the Scent Marketing Institute; he and I go back a long way. We were competitors in the dot-com days—he was with Aerome and I was with DigiScents. Harald’s background is marketing and he’s deeply committed to promoting scent marketing and scent branding. Like Harald, I believe the field is finally coming into its own. My role is to keep the organization connected to the latest empirical evidence about smell and consumer behavior.
A scientist and entrepreneur, Avery N. Gilbert, PhD works at the forefront of commercial innovation in the fragrance and consumer products industries. He is a pioneer in the areas of olfactory mental imagery, multisensory correlates of odor perception, and the psychological factors that bias odor judgments. He created the sensory psychology research group of a major international fragrance company, founded three olfactory-related startup companies, and serves as an advisor to two others. His book, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, will be published by Crown in June, 2008.
Dr. Gilbert’s training in evolutionary biopsychology led him to academic research on odor perception and later to commercial R&D management and entrepreneurship. Dr. Gilbert graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, and holds an MA in biology and PhD in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Following an NIH postdoctoral fellowship at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, he joined the Monell faculty. While there he co-authored the National Geographic Smell Survey—the largest participatory experiment of its kind. Dr. Gilbert left academia to create and lead the Sensory Psychology research group at Givaudan Roure Fragrances, and became a vice president there.
Dr. Gilbert runs Synesthetics, Inc., a company that provides innovative, multisensory research for the development and marketing of consumer products. Clients include leading brands in air care, personal care, and fine fragrance. He is also serves as Chief Scientist for the Scent Marketing Institute.
Dr. Gilbert’s entrepreneurial experience includes a stint at DigiScents, Inc., where he was a member of the founding management team and Vice President for Sensory R&D. The company developed technology to deliver smell via electronic media and the Internet. Dr. Gilbert also founded and later sold Cranial One Corporation, which produced the Cranial I Quick Sniff® smell test and marketed it to doctors via an e-commerce Web site.
Dr. Gilbert belongs to the Association for Psychological Science, the Association for Chemoreception Sciences, and the European Chemoreception Research Organization. He has published twenty-nine scientific articles. Dr. Gilbert’s work is often cited in the media, including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times, New York Times, Boston Globe, The Economist, BusinessWeek, and Newsweek. He has discussed the science of smell on national television and radio, including FOX, NPR, CNN, and MSNBC. He speaks frequently to professional groups on scientific and marketing trends in olfaction.
with Dr. Avery Gilbert
Olfaction expert and Scientist
appearing at Sniffapalooza Fall Ball
by Raphaella Brescia Barkley
Dr. Gilbert, you left academia to create and lead the Sensory Psychology research group at Givaudan Roure Fragrances, and became a vice president there. Can you please tell us about that? Working there must have been quiet exciting.
It certainly was. I originally joined Roure, a Paris-based fragrance house with a long and elegant history in fine fragrance. I was hired by Tom Virtue, president of the U.S. operation, and Jean Amic, who ran the whole show from France. They were in many ways the last of the great dinosaurs—strong personalities and brilliant, if autocratic, executives. They were as far as you can get from corporate bean-counters—they lived and breathed fine fragrance. I learned a lot about the business from them.
I had to overcome some initial resistance from the perfumers at Roure. They didn’t want some nerd-ball scientist destroying the magical appeal of their creations. But for me, like them, it’s all about the juice—smelling it and responding to it—not about attitudes or equations. "So I gradually won them over and built a great working relationship with Jimmy Bell, Rene Morgenthaler, Nathalie Feisthauer, Kari Arienti, Dave Appel, Steve DeMercado, and the all others."
My Sensory Psychology group did research on odor perception and put what we learned to use in the business. Roure was a lean organization, and I was responsible for the QC lab (gas chromatography), technical services (like stability testing, color control and so on), consumer research, and the compounding lab. For some reason, the compounding lab was a union shop—I think it was the only place in the world where perfumers’ samples were prepared by members of the Teamsters. Roure was an amazing place to work—enormous time pressure but strong comaraderie. I learned a lot very quickly. At one point I was in charge of 38 people and a budget of $2.4 million. I got to design and build an entire suite of sensory testing labs. It was great. I also visited clients outside the Center of the Universe in midtown Manhattan—companies like Johnson Wax in Racine, Wisconsin, Edward Lowe Industries (the Kitty Litter people) in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Helene Curtis in Chicago. It expanded my horizons: you get to see how fragrance works in functional products and from the point of view of the brand.
Roure eventually merged with Givaudan, the big Swiss-based house that, like us, was owned by the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche. I frequently visited the Givaudan-Roure research centers in Grasse and Zürich—some excellent fragrance chemists work there, guys like Roman Kaiser who is also an orchid nut and a leader in preserving the scented plants of the world. Still, things became a lot more “corporate” after the merger and for me a little less fun. So I left and started Synesthetics.
You have been called by many a pioneer in the areas of olfactory mental imagery, multisensory correlates of odor perception, and the psychological factors that bias odor judgments. You have also created the sensory psychology research group of a major international fragrance company, founded three olfactory-related startup companies, and serve as an advisor to two others. How on earth did you accomplish all of this?
I’ve always had the entrepreneurial bug. I was looking for something new when DigiScents arrived. After it blew up—a long and amusing story that I’ll tell you over drinks sometime—I started Cranial One Corp. to make rapid smell tests for use by doctors. I sold it in 2005, so that freed up some time.
You also co-authored the National Geographic Smell Survey—the largest participatory experiment of its kind. Tell us about that.
I was at Monell when Rob Hernandez, a National Geographic editor, visited. The magazine had just done an issue about the newly discovered wreck of the Titanic and they wanted to do something equally attention-grabbing. Rob had a story in the works on the sense of smell and asked if there could be real scientific value in a scratch-and-sniff piece to go with it.
I thought it was a cool idea—so along with my colleague Chuck Wysocki we jumped right in. It turned out to be an enormously complex project: 14 million copies of the Survey were printed and shipped to the magazine’s bindery in Alabama in refrigerated trucks. No one had done six different scratch-and-sniff panels on one piece, at least in a print run of this size. You haven’t lived until you hear a one-hundred-yard long printing press roar to life and get to speed. Awesome.
The Geographic generously underwrote the expense of putting the data from all 1.45 million respondents onto computer tape. (Yeah—this back when mainframes ruled the earth.) Chuck and I published a half dozen scientific papers based on the results. We threw some new light on sex differences, odor perception in aging, smell changes in pregnancy, and on specific anosmia for musks. Along with that armpit-sniffing photo, the Smell Survey brought a lot of attention to the field.
Your resume is astounding. What led you to pursue your life in the nose industry?
My original passion was for animal behavior and evolution. But even in college, smell was in the mix. For my honors thesis at Berkeley I investigated the ability of Merriam's kangaroo rat to detect the scent of the Western rattlesnake. This involved, among things, driving a sack of rattlers through the Caldecott Tunnel in the trunk of my '67 Chevy Impala. At the University of Pennsylvania I studied rat sex for my PhD. Sex pheromones, scent marking, and kin recognition via smell were all part of the mix. Then I went to Monell to study scent-based mate attraction in mice. This led to my first “human” experiment—a study to see whether people can smell the odors that mice use to pick their mates. Turns out we can. I switched my research from animals to humans and one day I got a phone call from Roure. And that was that.
Did you ever think as a child that this would be your career one day?
What is the oddest thing you have ever smelled?
It’s a tossup: defrosted, previously worn, feminine hygiene products, or the scent gland secretions of the Crested Auklet—an Arctic seabird that smells like tangerine.
What was the most beautiful scent/smell you have ever experienced?
Night-blooming jasmine on a warm breeze in Sarasota, Florida at two-thirty in the morning.
What was the most repulsive?
The gum-diseased breath of a well-known British scientist who liked to talk right in your face.
Talk to us about fragrance and what are your favorite notes? (sandalwood, musk and so on?)
I love oakmoss and patchouli—not the cruddy hippie oil, but a fine grade of patchouli, which is sublime. I even like how it smells baled in the warehouse waiting to be processed. I like cedarwood oil (terpeneless, from Texas). In the kitchen I enjoy working with fresh basil and cilantro. Call me crazy, but outdoors I like the smell of hot tar.
Ok, we must ask this, what fragrance do you wear? Can you share with us what your favorite fragrances are?
From the blotter I’m a sucker for big orientals like Opium and Obsession, but they have to be worn by the right woman. In general I veer away from the aldehydics and anything with an insistent single note (like Poison).
Dr. Gilbert, thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us. Your new book is amazing and I wish you the best.
We also look forward to meeting you at the Sniffapalooza Fall Ball in October. What an honor it will be to meet you.
What the Nose Knows by Avery Gilbert
by Kathy Patterson
Psychologist and smell scientist Avery Gilbert has written a book that answers a few questions about the sense that man probably knows least about – that of smell. In its twelve chapters, What the Nose Knows examines such diverse olfactory subjects as what makes up smell and how our brain reacts to it, how the sense of smell is important to the enjoyment of food, and scent in the cinema.
There are brief but interesting forays into the world of perfume. In one section, he ponders why there exist magazines such as Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator, but no Perfume Enthusiast? Clearly he has not discovered Sniffapalooza Magazine! Also perfume-related is his amusement of the industry’s use of coffee beans as a “reset button for the nose.”
One of the most interesting sections in the book deals with individuals who claim to be “so sensitive to chemicals in perfumes that the slightest whiff would trigger symptoms.” Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance (IEI) and those folks who want to ban the use of fragranced products is a subject that comes up not infrequently on the forums, and it is a comfort to know that the perfumed among us are probably safe from such extreme measures.
Although What the Nose Knows deals with a scientific subject, the book is very easy to read and understand; Gilbert’s sense of humor is quite entertaining and left me chuckling on several occasions. I strongly recommend this entertaining read to all of my fellow scent-o-philes.
The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and/or guest contributors and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Sniffapalooza Magazine; Raphaella Brescia Barkley and Sniffapalooza.com (the members only organization)
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