Body Odor & Dead People: How Culture & Scent Preferences Mix

What would you do if you were on the metro, and you caught a strong whiff of body odor? You’d probably hold your breath, right?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve learned that cultures view scent in different ways.

The West tends to view it as of a lower order, in relation to the other four senses.

Other cultures – like the Onge and Indian groups – hold scent in high esteem. Algerians even references the nose as their “honor.”

But not only do we view scent in a different way; we also may smell it differently.

Body Odor & Dead People

In some cultures, physical scent takes on a spiritual form.

For instance, a person’s scent is associated with personal identity for the Bororo of Brazil and the Serer Ndut of Senegal.

The Bororo see body odor as a person’s life force.

And the Ndut take this a step further. They believe in a physical and a spiritual scent-defined force.

The physical force is, of course, associated with body odor. The spiritual force may indicate when a deceased person or ancestor has been reincarnated in the body of a child with a similar scent.

On the other hand, Western cultures generally consider body odor unfavorable and even embarrassing. They do anything they can to cover it up.

Deodorants, body sprays, cologne, aftershave.

Natural body odor in the West is not a good thing.

But a Westerner in Africa might be considered strange for trying to cover up their god-given scent. In fact, I’ve been told by Africans that white people smell like death…which we can safely assume is not a good thing.

The Scents Around Us

The cultural preferences of scent may be partially influenced by the scents surrounding us, the scents we’ve taken in during primary socialization.

Consider a local market in Africa.

The fragrances are strong, exotic, unfamiliar. A Westerner might breathe in these aromas and find them unpleasant, while locals would probably disagree.

Much of what we find attractive in a scent depends on what’s valued in our culture.

In Ethiopia, the Dassanetch people, who raise cattle, find the smell of cattle preferable. The scent is tied to fertility and social status, so men often cover their bodies in cow manure and wash their hands in cow urine.

In Mali, the Dogon people find the fragrant scent of onion alluring. Both men and women use fried onion as a perfume, rubbing it on their bodies to attract partners.

All of these examples just go to show that our own environment often influences our preferences, shapes how we see the world, and ultimately defines our sense of smell.

Next week, we’ll discuss research on the differences in German and Japanese scent preferences.

Love, Honor, and Smell: How Scent is Viewed in Other Cultures

When you think of the five senses, how would you rank them, superior to inferior?

You might instinctively say that sight is the superior sense. Next, you’d probably go with hearing or touch, followed by taste or smell.

This ranking makes objective sense to you somehow, but it’s likely that social and cultural prejudice of certain senses comes into play.

Language & the Lower Order

Last week we talked about how scientists once perceived smell as of a “lower order” than all other senses. This was because, at the time, rationality was in vogue, and scent was linked with emotion.

This scientific attitude toward our senses led to less research into scent. Even our language followed suit.

Think about it.

  • When someone is impressive, we might call them a visionary.
  • When someone is athletic, we might call them dexterous.
  • When someone is a curator, we might say they have good taste.
  • When someone is musically talented, you might say they have a good ear.

But you never compliment someone’s nose or smelling abilities, and the terms for nose in our vocabulary are often derogatory (schnoz, snout, snooty, snotty, etc.).

There is no positive equivalency for the sense of smell as there are for our other four senses.

Cross-Cultural Views on Scent

The thing is, other world cultures do appreciate the power of scent. Some even hold it in the highest regard, above all others.

One example is the Onge of the Andaman Islands. This tribe defines everything primarily by smell.

For instance, seasons are named after a particular scent, largely depending on what types of flowers or fruits blossom. Their calendar is literally run by the nose.

They also personally identify according to scent. If talking about oneself, one touches the tip of his nose, which means “me” or “my odor.”

The scent-centered culture appears expresses their focus on the nose in their language.

Consider the Onge greeting:

“Konyune onorange-tanka?”

This is the English equivalent of “How are you?” But it literally means, “How is your nose?”

Greeting & Scent

The Onge are not the only ones to hold scent in such esteem.

In Algeria, the nose – called “nif” – is synonymous with honor.

In India, greeting someone by smelling them on the head is equivalent to a hug or a kiss in the West.

Moreover, one ancient text in India reads:

“I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love.”

So, it appears that, in some cultures, the link between scent and emotion makes the sense of smell even more powerful than all others.

Next week, we’ll continue this talk about culture and scent preferences.

The Nose Knows: Scent Emotion & Memory

You’re strolling down a path, when you brush past a lilac bush. You take a deep breath in, and suddenly memories of your grandmother flood in.

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“Nana…” you think. “Why am I suddenly recalling my gran?”

Then you recall the big lilac bushes in her backyard.

We’ve heard it all before: scent triggers memory. But just how does it work?

Scent -> Emotion

Last week, we talked about the power of our sense of smell. And perhaps this power is one of the reasons why scent triggers emotion and memory recall.

Consider ads for body fragrance, perfume, or scented products. Marketing specialists know that scent triggers certain emotions and, thus, attracts consumers to particular fragrances. And so, they bank on that.

The scent of nostalgia at Christmas -> buy a pine-scented candle.

The scent of joy in the summer -> a citric body spray will do the trick.

The scent of love/romance -> try something dusky and mysterious, like sandalwood.

Some fragrances serve as aphrodisiacs, others trigger positivity, and some even trigger productivity.

This association between fragrances and emotion is what may provoke recollections and vivid memories.

How Does It Work?

Here’s how:

  • The nose has olfactory receptors that are linked to the limbic system, which is the seat of emotion in the brain.
  • These smell sensations travel to the cortex, which is the seat of cognitive recognition.
  • Recognition only sparks after the depths of our brains have been ignited, so after feeling a certain emotion from a scent, it usually takes a moment for cognition and memory to catch up.

Why Don’t We Value Smell?

So, if our sense of smell is so powerful, why don’t we value it as much as, say, sight or touch or hearing.

During the 18th and 19th century, scientists and philosophers revalued the senses. The period’s elite believed sight to be the most important sense, the most civilized. The superior sense, if you will.

Sight was based on reason, while smell was considered of a lower order. According to Katie Fox’s The Smell Report, published by the Social Issues Research Center, smell was considered:

“a primitive, brutish ability associated with savagery and even madness.”

The culture of the time drew the link between smell and emotion and believed that this connection threatened the rational detachment that was in vogue.

This strange view of smell has impacted culture’s relation to it, especially when it comes to language. We’ll talk more about that next week.

Smell This: A Study in Scent

Sniff, sniff – there’s something in the air.

Is it fresh cut grass, the aroma of borscht cooking? Is it the stench of durian?

When compared with our other four senses, our sense of smell goes rather unnoticed.

Sight, sound, taste, touch – they all get plenty of play.

But smell…

Unless there’s a strong repulsion or attraction to an odor, this sense wafts under the radar.

And, yet, it’s one of our most powerful senses.

A Rose By Any Other Name…

Rockefeller University’s Andreas Keller conducted research on smell perception that demonstrated just how sensitive our sense of smell can be.

There’s a diverse complexity in scent that is unrivaled by sight and sound. The scent composition of a rose, alone, contains around 275 elements.

And humans can differentiate between trillions of these scents, according to Keller.

Keller’s study, published in Science Magazine in 2014, tested the capacity of humans to determine differences in various odor mixtures that had different shared components.

Their conclusion that humans can discriminate between upwards of a trillion odors far surpassed previous scientific literature, which determined 10,000 odors was our limit.

Comparably, we can only see somewhere between 2.3 to 7.5 million colors, and we can only hear 340,000 sounds.

As quoted in Keller’s abstract:

“[This research] demonstrates that the human olfactory system, with its hundreds of different olfactory receptors, far outperforms the other senses in the number of physically different stimuli it can discriminate.”

When it comes to the schnoz, the ear and eye can’t compare.

Evolution of Scent

Darwin knows the reason we can discriminate minute differences between odors: evolution.

What’s evolution got to do with it?

It turns out that smell is a handy tool for survival.

For instance, when we take week-old leftovers out of the fridge and give them a sniff, we can tell whether or not they’ve gone bad. If we crack that egg over the frying pan, and there’s a rancid odor, we know not to eat it.

So, if it’s a matter of life or death, the nose knows.

Another key factor in the study was that, when discerning scent, women regularly out-performed men. This may be because, throughout history, they most often prepared meals and had to know when food was rotten.

Animal Olfactory: How Do Humans Compare

After taking all this in, the human sense of smell may seem like a super power, but it falls way behind that of dogs and other animals.

Really, in the food chain of smell, we’d be on the bottom rung.

Think about it: this is the reason we use drug dogs at airports. Have you ever seen a customs officer sniff out a balloon of cocaine?

Regardless, our sense of smell is still incredibly sharp, and we’ll talk next week about how that sharpness impacts memory.