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Nov 27, 2010 08:10 AM

npr science friday segment on psychology of smell

Why does the smell of roasting turkey or baking pie immediately transport people into a holiday mood? Why do fragrant pine wreaths get many people thinking about family gatherings? In this holiday segment of Science Friday, we'll look at the psychology of taste and smell - and why it can make those holiday smells so evocative.

i was interested in this short, enjoyable piece about smell being strongly linked to strong emotional memories. thought the scientist, rachel herz was borderline offensive with her broad brush that "all" asian people find cheese disgusting and that western people can't stomach natto (otoh perhaps her comments taken out of context and chopped beyond all recognition). . . but her research sounds otherwise interesting. anybody read her book "the scent of desire?"

link to synopsis, can listen to audio & get link to book

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  1. This reminds me of a paper about religion, in which the researcher said that if you were to take children and isolate into societies, they'll each form their own religion. When I read it and saw all the effort being put into it, I thought, "These people never heard of the ancient Mayans and their gods, the Egyptians with Ra and company, the Greek with Zeus and siblings, ancient Persia and their cast, Buddhism..."

    It seems like people are looking for answers to questions that we already know the answer to.

    Here, I immediately (as many would) thought of Pavlov's dog and conditioned responses. With smells, we're just associating. I'm sure the studies are interesting, but the concept itself is 80 years behind the times.

    1. To me this seems subtler and more complex than the hunger of Pavlov's dogs, who were simply anticipating a meal.

      I think the underlying point here is the particularly powerful association of smells with the feelings of a specific moment in the past. Emotional time travel, if you will.

      Speaking for myself, some smells and tastes call up disconcertingly intense emotional responses. A picture can evoke a string of thought-memories. But scents transport me back instantly and powerfully to how I felt at a certain time earlier in life: crayons and white glue to kindergarten, pencil shavings and chalk dust to grade school, pecan coffee cake to visits at my grandparents' house. And any time I smell one of those balsam-filled pillows I'm eight years old again, spending summers in the Adirondacks.

      As to the issue of taste preferences in various races, once I get past my immediate negative reaction to any sort of racial stereotyping (a conditioned response, no?), it is not inconceivable that genetic makeup could affect the way some people experience different types of flavors. Humanity in general tends to experience sugars that are not good for us as pleasurable. Personally I think this may have evolved during the millenia of ice ages our ancestors survived, as a stimulus to get as much energy-rich fruit into us as possible during times when it was seldom available. It's a trait without which most of us would all be eating better, and many of us would in fact be living longer, healthier lives.

      When it comes to specific races, however, I find it just as likely that differences in tastes are due to the diets that people are accustomed to in different parts of the world.

      Especially when it comes to dairy, even I (Wisconsin-born and a confirmed cheese lover) find certain cheeses stinky, even among the ones I find tasty. It isn't hard to imagine how just a little bit more natural sensitivity (whether due to diet or to genetics) to this type of smell could result in a personal aversion to all dairy products.

      1 Reply
      1. re: eclecticsynergy

        Such an interesting post. I think about smell a lot. I am one of those weird super smellers where I can detect the faintest of faint odors and some strong smells are absolutely intolerable to me. I have a smell associated with SO many things. It was so nice to - luxuriate? in reading your smells that are evocative of certain things. I have no experience with balsam pillows, but I liked the thought of it. I love the smell of crayons and paste.

        Every once in a blue moon I would smell the fragrance my kindergarten teacher wore. I do not think they make it anymore or have changed the formula because I have ordered lots of powders and fragrances popular on or before the 60's with a description that matched the smell I have in my head and so far I have not hit on it.

        I like the smell of star anise. No recollections, but it is just stinky enough and with just the right smell to make me happy.

        As far as your theories on race, upbringing and background go - spot on - IMO.