How cute! What a lovely idea!
Ed, I just found your blog after you mentioned it.
I would be really wary of scratch and sniff surveys since the cards may actually smell different depending on the conditions to which they have been subjected. If they were sitting in a hot mailbox for days they will probably smell different than they did when fresh. If they got wet somewhere in transit, that will affect them.
Having said that, it's amazing how many people are anosmic to something or other. Humans have several hundred different olfactory receptor molecules, but only three for color vision. Smell has about 100 times the potential to vary that color vision does. When you think of all the possible combinations, the numbers become astronomical. It's not at all surprising that everyone's sense of smell is different. It's almost surprising that there's as much uniformity as there is.
The almost infinite number of variables at the front end is only the beginning of individual differences. Olfactory information is represented in the brain as a pattern of neural activity distributed over both space and time, which we have to interpret based on experience. Just as we have to learn to see, we have to learn to smell, assigning names to our best guess as to what mostly ambiguous patterns represent.
Conventionally, most perfumes characterized as "fresh" contain some sort of citrus, aldehydes, and/or aquatic notes produced by aromachemicals such as calone, helional, floralozone, etc. I haven't sniffed Anais Anais for a long time, but my recollection is that it was chock full of Iso E Super. But maybe I'm confusing it with something else. I'll have to dig it out and smell it again.
Nice job on the blog!
Here's my update! My own breastmilk does not smell like vanilla to me. But you know how sometimes people can't smell themselves? Perhaps that's what it was, because to me, my breastmilk had no odor at all. I can confirm, however, that breastmilk is sweet, and if I were given a choice between formula versus breastmilk, breastmilk wins hands down! My baby, on the otherhand, seemed to not care which one he got as long as he got fed ASAP!
I think there's a lot of value is separating the mental processing from the receptors in the nose. And you point out the extra dimension of taste - judgment, standards, comparison to a range of alternatives and information about those alternatives. I'm especially interested in your friend's reaction to vanilla because I found it somewhat soothing during some health problems two years ago. It's pretty widely liked. Do you know if she dislikes vanilla generally (e.g., in desserts) or just in fragrances? If she just dislikes vanilla in fragrances, then I'd guess she has a wide knowledge of fragrances and might dislike other notes that are so widely used they start to seem like clichés. I think Chandler Burr wrote that he likes lavender but it's so widely used in men's colognes that it's a cliché & he won't wear a cliché.
On the other hand, if your friend dislikes vanilla generally, she may be sensitive to some note that the rest of us miss or at least don't detect strongly.
Thanks for your analysis of Anais Anais. it had occurred to me that hyacinth might be the "fresh" note there. I don't have hyacinth growing in my yard and don't really have any recollection of how it smells. But I've made a note on my calendar that the bulbs will be available in our garden centers in September.
I need to find a source of inexpensive but reliable sample bottles so I can send out T Girl and Set Sail South Seas For Men. I haven't seen hyacinth listed as a note in either, so I'd love to know if their "fresh" notes all seem as similar to other people as they do to me. Of course it will be a problem quantifying how similar. I do smell other things in these fragrances at the same time I'm smelling "fresh." But let's leave quantification until later.
What if hyacinth and mandarin and flox and grapefruit and other natural products are all different but all add something to fragrances that's similar enough for us to call it "fresh?" What could it be? A single molecule that's present in all of them? Different molecules that share some common knob or indent (if the shape theory of smell detection is right)? Different molecules that share some common vibrational frequency (if the vibration theory of smell is correct)?
OK, I'm slapping my forehead. I have relevant data right here on my desk and didn't remember it. Back in November, 2009, I found the September, 1986 and the October 1987 back issues of National Geographic on eBay and bought them. You remember? Sept. 1986 had "The Intimate Sense of Smell," by Boyd Gibbons. And it had a pull-out, "The Smell Survey," with 6 scratch and sniff panels and a questionnaire to fill out and mail in. And Oct. 1987 had "The Smell Survey: It's Results," by Avery Gilbert (later author of What The Nose Knows) and Charles Wysocki.
I won't describe the results in too much detail - they are still the intellectual property of National Geographic. But there were 12 choices that could be used to describe each of the 6 smells on the panel - 1 was "No odor," 2-11 were descriptors, and 12 was "Other." The scratch and sniff panels in my copy of the magazine were intact and I took the survey. I correctly identified the floral aroma (as did more than 80% of the men and women who sent in the survey) and the fruity aroma (as did only about 49% of men and 53% of women). I mistook a spicy smell for sweet, a foul smell for burnt, and a musky smell for spicy - I think I was at least in the neighborhood on those. And there was one where I could smell something but had no idea what.
There were 1.5 million responses to the survey and they came from the US and from abroad. There's always a worry that respondents to surveys are somehow systematically different from the general population, but 1.5 million is a lot. For two of the smells, correct identifications were below 50% for both men and women. Slightly more than half the women and slightly less than half the men correctly identified the fruity smell. Another smell was correctly identified by between 58 and 60%. And two of the smells were correctly identified by more than 80% of the men and women.
Interestingly, there were two smells where more than 20% each of men & women couldn't smell anything. (I could smell something for all 6, so I don't feel too bad about my then-62-year-old nose.)
My interpretation of these results is, 1) There's a lot of commonality, so what's happening in the nose and in the brain is fairly consistent, at least within the community of National Geographic readers, but 2) The variations are also significant. Mistaking spicy for sweet or foul for burnt may be linguistic differences when our noses are all sending the same signals. But the difference between "can" and "can't smell anything," seems to show real differences in the noses of more than 1/5 of the respondents.
More later ...
accidentally posted twice-- sorry.
Ok-- I will give AA a shot (it is the only one of your reference scents I have on hand).
I think I understand the smell that you are describing as grapefruit, but I do not get grapefruit myself. For me, grapefruit is sharper, cleaner and more astringent. What I get is more of a powdery floral with a really strong hyacinth. I do get the greener, astringent, spicy bite of the carnation on the tail end of this. I grow carnations and recognize that smell. I suspect this is what might be read as grapefruit and that some of its character is masked by the hyacinth. Hyacinths are incredibly odiferous flowers that tend to overwhelm. I think they are responsible for the powder here.
The lily part is an enigma for me-- I also grow lilies and there are lots of types and they all smell differently. A stargazer type is really sweet, cloying and heavy. Orenpets, tiger lilies and oriental lilies are more subtly scenterd and vary a great deal from species to species. If they are there, which kind is it? Either it is a more subtle type that is lost or it is the stargazer funk married so closely to the hyacinth that I cannot pull them apart.
I am just starting out and I just order the perfume notes educational kit from the Perfumer's apprentice, so I might be off base. But when it comes, I will try this again:-)
Oh-- and I ran this by the husband. He doesn't get grapefruit, but he does get incense. He grew up near Buddhist temples and this is what stands out for him. But I suspect I may have lost the middle notes by the time I ran this by his nose (poor man-- I am always sticking a wrist in his face and asking him what he thinks.)
Ah, 64! A contemporary! No wonder I have been reading and following your thoughts with such ease. It's a great topic and one that I have just been ruminating on myself. I read alot of reviews because I have so little personal experience with any of these fragrances, even the most common and well-known.
At first I was puzzled. Why were peoples' perceptions of a given fragrance sometimes so radically different? I think I was simply trying to take in so much 'new' at once that the obvious answer did not occur to me until this week. It is not so much what we smell that is different. It is what we PREFER. Take for example vanilla. I have a good friend here on BN who shares my love of orange blossom and roses. However she does not like vanilla and I do. So if there is a vanilla note in a perfume, reviewers are going to pick up on that. And those that like vanilla are going to rate that fragrance higher, with a thumbs up, while conversely, those who do not like vanilla are going to pan it. This has nothing to do with the relative merits of that scent, per se.
But you are right-on when you also put the focus upon the brain. While the nose's receptors might be the same in everyone who has a "normal", unimpaired sense of smell, once the signals reach the brain all bets are off! It's probably all a typical bell curve. Perfumers aim their scents at a market. And if they are of a certain kind of perfumer, maybe one who wants to be popular, they aim their composition to the middle of the curve.
As the saying goes, "It takes all kinds"; this applies especially to fragrances. Thus niche companies. Et cetera. I am not sure where I went with all this. It was mainly just spontaneous stream of consciousness stuff, but maybe it has some value?
Oh cool post! And good for you on getting so much of it right by yourself!
I used to teach a class from time to time on the meaning of food, and I always did a little experiement with the 7up you are drinking (well, the cherry one) to illustrate the realtionship between taste and smell. If you pinch your nose shut and drink it, it tastes like regular 7 up. But the split second you open your nose, you get the cherry. It is like magic. Chemical magic, in this case.
I didn't realize you live in Texas! I lived in San Angelo for three years before moving back to my home state. Texas is its own very special place.
After reading your blog I think I can get you one step closer to the tobacco shop smell. I think the smell that the soaking tobacco is missing is the smell of the wood boxes they keep the cigars in. If you can find a classic tobacco shop they have empty used boxes they will give you.
Thanks for posting this, Ed. It was certainly an eye-opener for me, a reminder of some things I hadn't thought about for a while. I should go back and reread Avery Gilbert's book. It made a deep impression on me when I first came upon it.
Hope you're doing well. How's the recovery from surgery coming along? My physical therapy is progressing well; the therapist says I'm "ahead of schedule." Cheers!
What you wrote here is of great interest to me as it could explain why I practically don’t smell anything on myself after having applied l’Égoïste pour homme (Chanel). I’ll further investigate…
Thanks a lot for the reply and links. I see there are slides too which is really useful. (I am visual more than technical and need to be able to 'see' a concept.) The thread on Luca Turin's theory of smell is very interesting. Hopefully there will be an update on there soon?
I'm looking forward to your next blog entry.... with diagrams please!
Selky, wow, I am envious. I can only very occasionally produce just a momentary flash of a fragrance in my mind. More often there's an instant of surprise or something when I smell a familiar fragrance, "Oh, yeah, that's what jasmine smells like."
With vision I can not only recognize a letter "A," I can write it. Artists can draw or paint a face from memory. Musicians can both recognize a middle C and sing it. I think it's in Hannibal that Thomas Harris says the fascinating Dr. Lechter has a hall of memory where he can vividly experience many sensations of smell, taste and touch. I hope I can develop this ability with practice.
I think my next blog is going to be some more detail of how we recognize smells. In a thread about Luca Turin's theory of smell, Redneck Perfumisto provided these links to talks and interviews by Richard Axel & Linda Buck.
2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Richard Axel's Nobel Lecture
Linda Buck's Nobel Lecture
Linda Buck at HHMI
I'm proud of how much I got right. But of course much more was already known years earlier.
I have been reading your blog with interest. This post especially. What are your thoughts on smell memory in reverse, so to speak? For example; yesterday I was reading the entry on Anais Anais for the first time in Roja Dove's Essence of Perfume and I could smell it. I used to wear this when I was 14 and haven't smelt it for years but while reading the description my nose was reacting as if it was there. Smelling a smell without a smell actually being there. Writing this I can't recreate it. Normally I can say I know what x smells like and can imagine what a series of notes will smell like. But I can't sense it as vividly as that. I'd be interested in your thoughts.
See Avery Gilbert's Nov 30, 2009 blog entry for more, including a recent study. Dr. Gilbert refers to The Helen Keller Fallacy by which I think he means that blindness doesn't really increase or improve the odor receptors in the nose. But I believe he appreciates the brain's ability to learn and to interpret signals from those receptors as much as I do.
Thanks, Aiona. The statement certainly seems plausible but I believe in verification. And I can't personally verify at this time
LOL! I dunno if breastmilk smells like vanilla, as I was a formula-baby myself. But perhaps I'll be able to tell ya in a few weeks. I have heard numerous women tell me that their breastmilk is sweet. But no one has mentioned vanilla.
Fascinating! I hope I can check out these books at some time in the future!
Let me repeat my thanks to JaimeB for reviewing the book a while ago and pointing me to it after one of my earlier blogs. I find myself checking it very often. It's much broater than Emperor/Secret of Scent.