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Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell

by Rachel Herz

Pub Date: Oct. 9th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-06-082537-9
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

A lively, seductive exploration of what the nose knows.

Pity olfaction, the least celebrated of the five senses: In one poll, people ranked smell as the sense they’d mind losing the least. But, says Herz (Psychology/Brown Univ.), one of a handful of researchers doing groundbreaking work on the psychology of smell, the ability to smell the world around us shapes and informs every part of our lives—particularly our emotional existence. When robbed of a sense of smell—whether through head injury, severe depression or other cause—we lose a vital connection to the material world and its sensual pleasures. In thoughtful and accessible writing, Herz explains why it is that smells act as such direct conduits to emotional memories—think Proust and his famous madeleines—and why they have such a profound ability to affect our well-being (consider the lingering and distinctive smell in New York City after 9/11 and the power it had over the memories of its residents). Demystifying—and in some cases, debunking—everything from aromatherapy to the mysterious disorder Multiple Chemical Sensitivities to the bizarre circumstances surrounding the 1997 suicide of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, Herz explains the neural and physical bases of scent perception and the idiosyncratic ways in which smells become tied to particular experiences. But her explanations of why we smell are perhaps the most fascinating. Smell not only underlies the ability to tell which meat is rotten and which is fresh, but also potently affects sexual attraction, and not as Coco Chanel might have thought (the grande dame of fashion once said, “Without perfume, women have no future.”). Before you apply deodorant tomorrow morning, consider that it is in fact the natural body odors we spend so much time trying to cloak that most inform who we will choose to mate with and who we will avoid.

A delightfully unexpected blend of personal anecdotes, pop-cultural erudition and scientific understanding.