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Smell at the Bell

April 14, 2009


Smell scientist Avery Gilbert, who speaks at the Bell Museum April 18, says that contrary to to popular belief, human olfactory prowess compares favorably with that of other animals, even dogs.

Olfactory expert Avery Gilbert speaks about the science of scent

By Deane Morrison

During a talk with smell scientist Avery Gilbert, a New York Daily News reporter reminded him how far some city dwellers have strayed from their agrarian roots.

"She was talking about how horses in Central Park stink," says Gilbert. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' After too long in the big city, you kind of lose your anchor."

Gilbert, author of What the Nose Knows, a whirlwind tour of how scents influence everyday life, will talk about "The Seduction of Scent" at 7 p.m. April 18 in the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History, 10 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis.

The seduction part goes beyond the claims of the latest perfume ads. For one thing, it aptly describes the lure of certain orchids that mimic the form and smell of female bees, the better to draw in hapless males to pollinate them.

And, as Gilbert recounts in his book, store owners can manipulate scents to subtly encourage male and female shoppers to buy more. (We tried perfuming this Web page to keep you reading, but failed miserably.)

The natural world is awash in scents that signal items like food, danger, and mates.

"When we're smelling these, sometimes the message is intended for us and sometimes we're eavesdropping on communications between plants and animals, for example, by flowers," says Gilbert.

"I think humans have created their own smell environment through spices and the act of cooking, which creates new smells. We've been led by our noses."

Asked if there are universally liked smells, he says "there's always one Uncle Fester who likes skunks, but floral smells often signal a food source, especially blossoms of fruit tress. [Plants] often use similar metabolic pathways to make both flavors and scents."

The human penchant for savoring food may come from the way we smell it, Gilbert says.

"The action of swallowing sends scented air up the back of the nose. It's the reverse of usual smelling," he explains. "That's the way we get the aroma of food and wine, and it's that savoring that sets us apart from other mammals, who gulp. For example, carnivores rip and gulp their food." Any dog owner can attest to that.

"I think humans have created their own smell environment through spices and the act of cooking, which creates new smells. We've been led by our noses. Our noses have evolved to please our mouths. We have smaller faces and jaws [than our fossil ancestors], but a more agile tongue. I think this whole apparatus for savoring food has come up as we've been cooking and flavoring food."

In his book, Gilbert relates how people can develop strong aversions to pleasant smells associated with unpleasant tasks. A case in point: soldiers on body retrieval duty who used cologne to mask the rotting smell and ended up unable to bear the cologne.

People may also be able to learn to like bad odors. Gilbert tells how a resident of Monroe, Wis., once complained to the mayor about life in the Limberger cheese capital of the nation.

"The mayor said, 'It smells like money,'" Gilbert chuckles.

A fragrance developer who has designed scents ranging from perfume to kitty litter, Gilbert started out with a fascination for animal scent-related behavior. His book has several examples of how, contrary to popular belief, human olfactory prowess compares favorably with that of other animals, even dogs.

Gilbert's own contributions to this knowledge include an experiment to see if people could distinguish the odors of two strains of mouse, just as female mice could in choosing mates. His book describes the experiment:

"I had blindfolded people sniff live mice in Tupperware containers with holes cut in the sides. Occasionally a mouse tail would get up someone's nose; this seemed to bother some people more than others. ... [The] results were clear: untrained humans could distinguish between the mouse strains based on smell alone. The uncanny scent powers of mice were well within human reach."

Reaction to this research propelled Gilbert to a career in the perfume industry and to a booking at the Bell Museum. University entomology professor and bee expert Marla Spivak, who will introduce Gilbert, will also speak about the role of pollinators in our love affair with scents. Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door; Bell Museum members receive a $10 discount. For tickets and more information, call (612) 624-9050.

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