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Smell: Our Underrated Sense

Smell: Our Underrated Sense

Your sense of smell could help you find the perfect partner.

A friend of mine is very attentive to my heightened sense of smell. “Oh! I warmed up some food early, does that bother your nose? Should I light a candle? Do you like the way this candle smells?” He calls me a super smeller. It’s a thing.

Smell is my favourite
My nose has definitely come in handy. On one occasion, I smelled a distinct death odor at the tattoo studio I worked at. The problem was locating the critter… To everyone else the smell was emanating from all directions and most were reluctant to sniff for more information. But not I! After a ten minute sniffing survey, I call over my colleague. I point behind a shelf in the storage area. “Here. It’s here,” I said. “Are you sure?” said my colleague. “Yes.” “Ah. Gross.” What a pungent smell for such a tiny mouse.

You would think these stories would make for unpleasant experiences, and yes, surely sometimes strong odors give me headaches, but my favorite sense of our five still is smell. I would give it up over eyes and ears for functional reasons, but I would be very depressed without my sense of smell. (For the record, I would give up tastes if I had a choice between all five.) Smell is another world of experience and because of how powerful olfactory cues are for remembering, you get to relive a time, place, or person by getting a scent of it.

Equipping offspring
And people smell… The Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) is a gene that controls a large part of the immune systems in vertebrates. It is also suspected to play a role in mate selection. Evolutionarily and genetically, you should mate with healthy individuals who are genetically different from you, in order to create offspring with a wider range of immunities and to prevent inbreeding. How to figure out which mates have the most different MHC genes compared to you?

Well, some suggest you can smell it on people. In a well know sniff test, Claus Wedekind had women smell shirts. These shirts were worn by men with no added scenting (i.e. cologne, scented soap, deodorant) for two days. Women chose the most “attractive” smelling T-shirts. Overwhelmingly, the women consistently chose men with dissimilar MHC genes to their own. (These effects were altered when the women were on birth control.)

Birds disprove it
These scents are of course subtle, but I can attest that when I lived in my small hometown I may have been surrounded by people more genetically similar to me. Otherwise clean suitors had a strange smell… I found it aversive. Thankful, I have found others that are from far away countries. Their MHC genes are nice and diverse. They smell much more appetizing. But alas, it may not be MHC at all. In a just published study by Sepil and colleagues, they found “no evidence for MHC… disassortative mating in a wild population of great tits.” Those are not boobs, but birds. Alas.

MHC or not, to me those select people smell delicious. The take-home message is that there are so many lovely things to be smelled. Take a walk and keep a nose out for wet earth. Or when someone opens a bottle of wine, see if you can catch the aroma travel from the bottle to your nose. The amount of time it takes for those tiny wine molecules to travel from the bottle to your nose is the rate of dispersal.

Smells are too often overlooked and undersniffed. Take a moment to take a whiff!

Sepil, I., Radersma, R., Santure, A., De Cauwer, I., Slate, J., & Sheldon, B. (2015). No evidence for MHC class I-based disassortative mating in a wild population of great tits Journal of Evolutionary Biology DOI: 10.1111/jeb.12600
Wedekind, C., Seebeck, T., Bettens, F., & Paepke, A. (1995). MHC-Dependent Mate Preferences in Humans Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 260 (1359), 245-249 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1995.0087

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