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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/What the Nose Knows

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's Katie Zemtseff reports on the power of suggestion and our sense of smell.


CURWOOD: Just ahead: the perils and promises of bringing a remote mountain kingdom in global commerce and communications. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Katie Zemsteff.

ZEMTSEFF: The power of suggestion can influence everything from how we eat to how we shop. And now, scientists say it can also affect how we smell.

Researchers at Oxford University monitored the brain variations of 12 subjects who were exposed to various smells. As different odors were presented, words would appear inside special glasses worn by the subjects. After each odor the subject would rate the smell as pleasant or unpleasant. Smells ranged from the unmistakable odors of flowers and burned plastic to more ambiguous scents resembling cheddar cheese. In these cases, scientists paired the cheesy smells with the phrases ‘cheddar cheese,’ or ‘body odor.’ Not surprisingly, subjects rated the pleasantness of what they smelled much higher when it was called cheese, rather than body odor.

Turns out, the cheddar cheese label produced a sensation in the part of the brain where pleasant odors are processed. Scentless air labeled cheddar cheese also activated this area. But the cheesy smell label “body odor” produced no activity at all – giving credence to the theory that what our brain sees outweighs what it smells – even if the information is inaccurate.

So next time you’re unsure how fresh your milk is, do yourself a favor and “follow your nose” – not the claims of freshness on the label. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Katie Zemtseff.



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