Science | The economic power that is your nostrils

Whilst we humans like to think of ourselves at the top of the biological tree, we are in fact rather feeble animals when it comes to our senses. In comparison to most other beasts our field of view is blinkered, our auditory dampened and our sense of smell bunged up. Though nearly all of us will be sporting spectacles and hearing aids at some point in our lives our degraded, reduced and redundant senses still have some power in them.


Olfaction, the sense of smell, is most often considered the weakest of our major scenes, although it is essential to how we taste (our taste buds are only able to detect five different ‘flavours’, our nose can smell thousands of aromas). We harbour five to six million receptive cells to detect chemicals, shared on two compact patches at the roof of the nasal passage. A rabbit has 100 million of these cells and a dog 220 million. Though in comparison our receptive capabilities are greatly conserved, these few million cells can detect odours in the most infinitesimal quantities.

Akin to the promotion of arousing and alerting caffeine consumption in the office, the fragrance of peppermint has a similar invigorating effect on humans. One Japanese company has utilised  the power of the nose to aid the productivity of it’s employees throughout the day. Stimulating citrus in the early morning, concentration enhancing floral notes during the early evening, with earthy and woody aromas at the close of the day to alleviate fatigue and jadedness. Notably these are all pleasant scents and it is unsuprising that repulsive odours cause reduced productivity; however, this pattern is not always the case as the agreeable scent of galaxolide (a musky odorant) can halve the efficiency of workers. In one experiment, with the odour significantly below the detection threshold, galaxolide heavily impaired the ability for subjects to concentrate in visual search tasks.

Human behavioural and emotional manipulation through the detection of odorous chemicals has been theorised to be the cause of survival reflexes from our evolutionary past. When we detect signals of air contamination (through poorly ventilated buildings, known as ‘sick-building syndrome’) we begin to feel lethargic, avoiding strenuous tasks.

The manipulation of human emotion by odours has some impressive economic impacts. In 1991 Bodywise UK researchers observed that debt letters impregnated with an androstenone-derived odorant, a pheromone produced by male sweet glands, perceived as a threatening and hostile scent, caused a 17 per cent increase in payment to those letters not scented. The company since patented the chemical and market it to debt collection companies at a staggering £3,000 per gram. Conversely, correspondence trying to limit hostile responses may contemplate dosing these letters in vanilla essence, an odour considered to alleviate anxiety and startle-reflex response. A consideration for the next time you hand in an essay.


Henry Beach

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