There’s more to smell than detecting odors. If it was just a case of identifying odors, it wouldn’t be very interesting for very long.
Our ability to smell has been broken down to seven primary odors. Those are: camphoric – like mothballs, etheral – like cleaning fluid, floral – flowers, musky – some perfumes, pungent – like vinegar, peppermint – mints and putrid – like rotting eggs. Of course, we actually recognize thousands of different smells. And even with the primary odors there are wide variations. Most of us can think of other putrid smells besides rotten eggs, for instance.
Sometimes the putrid smells are so bad that we might wish we couldn’t smell at all. Not being able to smell is a condition called anosmia, and it’s not very nice, by all accounts. The sense of taste becomes very flat and dull without the sense of smell. People are known to become depressed more readily when their sense of smell is impaired. Still, it might be nice to have temporary anosmia sometimes.
We’re undoubtedly better off not being able to turn off our sense of smell, nice though that may be. Smell, and the other chemical sense, taste, are ancient, experienced and reliable sentries, patrolling our bodies’ perimeters. They give us clues and warnings about our environment.
The sense of smell gives us information, sometimes so subtle that we’re not consciously aware of it, about the presence and location of dangers like noxious fumes, rewards like food and water, even the familiarity or strangeness of other people. It is such a basic sense that it recognizes and classifies odors the first time we encounter them. Babies one day old will show distaste for bad smells the first time they’re exposed to them. Babies and their mothers can recognize each other purely by the sense of smell.
Our bodies release chemicals that differ depending on our emotional state. Other people can recognize them and tell what we’re feeling. In general, women are better then men at it. In a recent study, people had samples taken while watching movies that elicited different emotional responses, and a panel of women correctly discriminated amongst them. They could tell if the subjects watched a happy film or a sad one, just by the chemicals released in their armpits.
It’s well known that dogs and horses can smell fear. Women who live in close quarters tend to synchronize their menstrual cycles by their changing odors. Men find women more or less attractive depending on where they are in their fertility cycle. We smell different when we’re ill than when we’re well. Even the state of our immune system is communicated by how we smell.
There’s much more to smell than simply detecting odors.