An incomplete sense of smell

612.86

What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, by Gilbert Avery (2008).

My book-choosing method– bringing home three books in a decade and then deciding which one to read– is leading to some serious borrower’s remorse.  It’s not as serious as buyer’s remorse because, of course, the books end up back on the shelf, ready for me to check out again, but it’s definitely a curious side effect of this challenge: I find myself regretting the ones that got away.

The regret is particularly strong with the 610s, as I found Gilbert Avery’s book pretty disappointing.  I did learn some interesting tidbits, including confirming that an upper respiratory tract infection can indeed affect the sense of smell.  And the mechanism is even more interesting, as it’s not that a stuffy nose makes it hard for scent molecules to reach receptors, as I had assumed.  It turns out that an infection can actually kill off some of the nerve cells, destroying the sense of smell until they can grow back.  Apparently, it can be a bit tricky for the new cells to get connected properly, so it’s possible to regain one’s sense of smell but still have the smells be “off” a bit– which might explain why my oatmeal and coffee tasted distinctly like cardboard one morning.  (No denigrating oatmeal, please– I happen to like it!).

Despite this fascinating snippet, I found the rest of the book frustrating.  Avery focuses largely on the commercial use of scents, especially the development of “logoscents” for various companies.  I must admit that his style irked me, too.  His writing was very much designed to translate research for a popular audience.  Normally, I’m strongly in favor of making research accessible to a general audience, but not when it means dumbing things down.  In one chapter, for example, Avery discusses a study that debunks the idea that certain scents (like lavender) are calming, while others (like mint) are invigorating.  It turns out that researchers can convince people that either scent has either quality, just by priming the individuals doing the sniffing to think of it in one way or another.  All very interesting.  But what am I to think when Avery presents a study several chapters later that purports to show that shoppers spend more money when a store pipes in a calming scent, like lavender, than when they use an invigorating scent, like mint or citrus?

Good thing that checking out books is free!

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3 Responses to An incomplete sense of smell

  1. barbara munson says:

    At least you make the reading sound interesting.

  2. Laura says:

    Ha! Oh, that’s rich. Is there a scent that makes people more gullible, more prone to believe too-good-to-check research?

    I had no idea about infections killing olfactory neurons. That makes some sense–the olfactory bulb is one of the parts of the brain that has the most turnover in new neurons. But that’s still really weird. Did he have, like, data?

    • deweyreader says:

      Well, he seemed to do a decent job of reporting on specific research– it’s just that he didn’t seem to think about how the stories related to each other (or contradicted each other). If I can remember, I’ll check his references on the olfactory neurons when I’m next at the library.

      (Wanna bet on the chances of that happening?)

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