Sniffing Out Love

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This piece by Sarah Everts will make you pause before you next shake hands (whenever this becomes the social norm again). Writing for The Walrus, Everts discusses the importance of smell — and quotes an experiment by Idan Frumin showing that a few seconds after a handshake “subjects would inevitably sniff their own hands to gain some odorous information about the new person.”

Often dismissed as the bottom of the pack when it comes to our senses — the one you would choose to do without — humans, in fact, have an excellent sense of smell, and are subconsciously using it all the time to collect information and recognize loved ones. Evert cleverly intertwines this fascinating science with taking part in a social experiment — a smell-dating event in Russia. The general concept of this event is for people to work up a sweat, wipe said sweat on a cotton pad, and put it in a jar. You then sniff anonymous BO jars and pick your favorite. For Evert, the jars ranged from “the odor of a hormonal teenager in the full throes of puberty—plus exercise,” to the holy grail — jar number fifteen — which smelt of “sex epitomized.” This article is both interesting and humorous … and you’ll come away much more aware of what you are sniffing. 

Sniffing the odours of our loved ones—whether consciously or unconsciously—continues throughout our lives. Siblings and married couples are able to correctly identify the smell of people with whom they cohabitate. Even adult siblings who haven’t seen (or smelled) each other for more than two years can still correctly recognize their brother’s or sister’s unique odour print, the signature mixture of chemicals floating off their bodies.

The importance of odour for social cohesion is perhaps best exemplified by the challenges of those who cannot smell. People with anosmia—the inability to smell—often face relationship challenges: men without a sense of smell have fewer sexual partners while nonsmelling women are insecure in their relationships. Both are more prone to getting depressed. Meanwhile, some research suggests that empathetic people are more likely to remember the odour of another person.

Our sniffing abilities and their role in establishing and maintaining social structures can be surprising to some, likely because the human sense of smell has long been belittled by scholars: the father of transcendental idealism, Immanuel Kant, thought life would be better if we all just held our noses so that they were shut off from the outside world. “Which organic sense is the most ungrateful and also seems the most dispensable? The sense of smell. It does not pay to cultivate it or refine it . . . for there are more disgusting objects than pleasant ones (especially in crowded places), and even when we come across something fragrant, the pleasure coming from the sense of smell is fleeting and transient.”

Throughout history, many thinkers have argued that vision is a much more civilized way of experiencing the world; using our noses seemed animalistic, vulgar, backward. If humans sniffed one another as dogs do, how could we consider ourselves above them? How could we consider ourselves enlightened?Instead of swiping, the strategy is wiping: namely, one’s perspiration onto a cotton pad. Instead of swiping, the strategy is wiping: namely, one’s perspiration onto a cotton pad.

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