SMELL by Piet Vroon


The Secret Seducer
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 Everything you wanted to know about one of the two ``chemical'' senses, including the fact that taste is as much a function of smell as it is of taste buds. Vroon, a Dutch psychologist, reviews the neural anatomy, neuroscience, physiology, history, myths, and texts relating to olfaction. The problem is that much remains myth and mystery--a phenomenon the author attributes to a general cultural denigration of the sense. Smell is considered a little vulgar and, from a commercial standpoint, more a concern of entrepreneurs out to mask smells or else persuade that perfumes can indeed seduce. With regard to the latter; not so, Vroon says. Perfumes are more apt to be used to please the wearer, and may have originated as a means of disguising when a woman was fertile (to keep men guessing and in tow, so to speak). Maybe, maybe not . . . but this is just one of many provocative suggestions and findings he adduces. These include assorted experiments with sweaty T-shirts, essence of human breaths, baby's security blankets, breast-feeding mothers and even twin studies that suggest that we are good at sniffing out males from females, one's own infant, mother, and mates from strangers. So we retain some of the wisdom of dogs, truffle-snuffling pigs, and other creatures who glory in smells. Cultural dismissal of smell may also have to do with our poor vocabulary and memory for smells. The author explains this on the basis of the sense being evolutionarily older and connected to emotional rather than cognitive centers. Just such connections may explain why we can be conditioned unconsciously: e.g., we may come to associate a smell with fear or pleasure, depending in the initial circumstance. And while diseases affecting smell are uncommon, they are exceedingly destructive of the quality of life. Given the many unknowns, students in search of a research topic should find the text a prime source of ideas. As for the rest, there are enough tidbits and food for thought to please the curious mind.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-374-25704-3
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1997


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