In 1890, Dr. James McNaught of Manchester reported in The British Medical Journal the strange case of a 24-year-old factory worker whose burp caught on fire while he was holding a match, badly burning his face and lips. McNaught managed to replicate the burning belch with the man in his office, confirming it really did happen. He diagnosed the problem as the "eructation of inflammable gas" from the man's stomach.
McNaught concluded that the man suffered from a disorder that caused food to ferment in his stomach and produce flammable gas, instead of being digested. He advised the man to eat foods that would pass more quickly out of his stomach, to avoid the fermentation.
There have been a variety of studies examining how psychoactive drugs affect behavior and creative output. But could smells also have a psychoactive effect? That was the question posed in a 1958 experiment conducted by scientist Leo H. Narodny — published in an obscure trade journal, The Perfumery & Essential Oil Record. Narodny wrote: "It may be possible, by inhaling certain odours, to influence creative imagination without endangering the whole brain by an excessive dosage of drugs."
He used a textile designer as his test subject. Every day, for two weeks, he had her draw a design while breathing unscented air. Then, after breathing in air saturated with an odorous essential oil (such as bergamot, vanilla, peppermint, or cedarwood), she drew a second design. Some of the results are below.
It was hard to draw conclusions based on such a small sample size, but Narodny felt that the designer tended to draw more abstract patterns when exposed to the essential oils.
In the early twentieth century, odor researchers Ernest Crocker and Lloyd Henderson created a classification scheme that allowed them to number and catalog every smell in the world. Kind of like a Dewey decimal system for smells. Every different odor was assigned a four-digit code.
Their system was based on the premise that every smell is a combination of four "primary odors." So the four-digit code was created by judging and listing the relative strength of each primary odor.
Crocker would sometimes telephone Henderson and call out a number: 6443! 8257! Henderson would have to guess what it was – Old grapefruit rind? Tomato sauce? Shaving lotion? Most times, according to Crocker, Henderson would be right. They would go on "smelling binges" in the Arnold Arboretum, putting a number to each blossom.
The problem was that judging the relative strength of each primary odor in any one smell turned out to be a very subjective process. Other people struggled to replicate the numbers that Crocker and Henderson came up with. So their system was never adopted by other researchers.
Henry Gray of Newcastle suffers from "lexical-gustatory synaesthesia," which means that he experiences people's names as smells or tastes. He says that the name 'Kirsty' smells of urine, and 'Duncan' is "like a bird dipped in smoky bacon crisps."
Makes me wonder what my name would smell like. I'm sure it's not anything good.
to determine, by means of a well-developed scientific methodology, whether there are unique signatures in emanations that can be used to identify and distinguish specific high-level-of-interest individuals within groups of enemy troops or combatants, and if so, to develop enabling technology for detecting and identifying those specific signatures. The program consists of an interdisciplinary team of performers using state-of-the-art techniques to evaluate the statistical, biological and chemical nature of individual emanations. Once the nature of the chemosignal has been characterized, performers will determine the impact of non-genetic factors (e.g., diet, stress, health, age) on the signal in order to determine whether the signal can be robustly extracted from a complex and varied chemical background. If an exploitable robust signature is identified, the program will then pursue detector development.
I haven't been able to find out what's become of the program since 2007. Though I'd wager that the U.S. government hasn't completely abandoned the idea since being able to identify people by their smell would be a hard-to-defeat surveillance technology. (Assuming that we all really do have a unique 'odortype' that can't be camouflaged with fragrance or by eating stinky food).
However, I did find a report on the program from 2005 that included the interesting detail that they field-tested the technology on seven sets of twins at Williamsburg, VA and Research Triangle Park, NC:
a field study was planned and conducted by RTI. In this study, identical twins and a family member (sibling or parent) were recruited. Each group went to either Williamsburg, VA, or Research Triangle Park, NC, for a four-day stay at a hotel. During this stay, daily sweat samples were collected onto polydimethylsiloxane membranes, as described in earlier reports to DARPA/ARO. A total of seven sets of twins were recruited. The goal was 30 twin pairs. Given the relatively poor response rate and the need for project resources to adequately address the data processing and statistical analysis needs of the overall USD program, the field study was terminated.
Research by biologists Noam Sobel and Idan Frumin reveals that after a handshake people frequently lift their hand to their nose and sniff it. The researchers hypothesize that this is to smell the body odor of the other person.
Sobel also conducted a fascinating experiment with his graduate student Idan Frumin to see what people did with their hands after a handshake. Their team secretly videotaped people after they shook the hand of someone new, someone they had just met for the first time. Here's their delicious discovery: A few seconds after the handshake, the experimental subjects would inevitably sniff their own hands, to gain some odorous information about the new person.
"When we showed them the videos, many of the subjects were completely shocked and disbelieving," Frumin told me. "Some thought we had doctored the videos - not that we had the computing power or the expertise to do so."
. . . When Frumin now goes to conferences, he sometimes stands back and watches people unconsciously sniffing. "Sometimes I catch myself doing it too. People tell me I've ruined handshakes for them, that they've become very self-conscious about shaking hands, especially with me."
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.