Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Coffee with Avery Gilbert

Dr. Avery Gilbert is a sensory psychologist specialized in the sense of smell. He has conducted research on human odor perception in academic laboratories and in the R&D divisions of multinational perfume companies. He has been lecturing and teaching audiences about the science of smell. He is also the author of the book, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life. It's a fast-paced tour of the latest discoveries and how they challenge long-held beliefs about the sense of smell.
Dr. Avery Gilbert
Photo Credit: Dr.A.G.

+ Q Perfume is a blog interest in all aspects involving fragrances, including the sense of smell. Therefore this blogger is always looking for articles and personalities discussing these themes.

Back in 2008 I discovery Dr. Avery Gilbert's blog called First Nerve - the science and culture of smell. I was very excited to find a professional discussing themes related to the sense of smell and the influence of smells on human behavior. In his blog one can find not only very scientific articles, but also others approaching aspects of our daily lives (some are hilarious).

I sent him questions that were in my mind for a long time, Curiosities that I had about practical things. I didn't want to deep level scientific discussions and themes because we can read them in his blog.

So learn here more about this impressive professional:

+Q.: Why do we like some scents, odors and fragrances and dislike others?

A.G.: People often disagree about individual smells but there is agreement about general classes of smells. For example, fruity and floral notes are liked, while fecal and rotten ones are not. If there were no broad trends in preference there would be no perfume industry. Are odor preferences due to learning and experience? That’s the default assumption of most psychologists, who tend to dislike biological theories. I think the more we look for biological or even genetic bases for differences in odor perception, the more we will find.

+Q.: How exactly marketing campaigns can influence our decision to buy this or that perfume? (related to sense of smell etc…)

A.G.: Marketing matters. It can get you to try a new scent but it can’t make you buy the second bottle if you don’t like it. And if the fragrance is good, but the packaging and presentation don’t fit, then the perfume won’t do well commercially. As perfume becomes more like Hollywood—a reliance on blockbusters, endless sequels, importance of celebrities—perfume marketing runs into similar problems. How do you make a unique campaign for the thousandth picture about car chases and explosions?

+Q.: The Kama Sutra, the fifth-century Hindu sex manual, written by men, praises the scent of women and proclaims that the beauty of a woman is not determined by how she looks, but rather how she smells. But isn't it true that body chemistry influences women more than men when choosing biological possible mates?

A.G.: Both can be true. Let’s say that for men body scent is a source of tactical information—it’s about immediate sexual arousal or turnoff. For women, it’s a strategic matter—choosing a biologically compatible mate for the long haul. This is consistent with evolutionary considerations: males try to maximize mating opportunities, females look to maximize parental investment. Vive le difference!

+Q.: Where do expressions like “this is smelling bad” or “it stinks” come from?

A.G.: A lot of our descriptive terms are crossovers from the other senses. For example, a lot of things smell “sweet” or “sour” by analogy to taste, and “sharp” by analogy to touch. This is currently a hot area for research: it turns out there are brain areas that integrate information from multiple senses, including smell.

+Q.: I was always told that dogs and other animals could smell fear. Is it true?

A.G.: It’s part of the conventional wisdom and there may be a kernel of truth to it. Denise Chen at Rice University just showed that underarm sweat from guys watching stressful movies makes women see fear in ambiguous facial expressions. So perhaps dogs can pick up the same chemical cues.

Cappuccino - Kopenhagen Brazil

+Q.: Freshly brewed coffee is one of the aromas I love the most. Why is it so pleasant to smell roasted coffee or brewed coffee in the morning?

A.G.: I’m the same way. Could it be the psychological association with breakfast? Or a physiological conditioning linked to caffeine? Good coffee is so important to me that I have fresh-roasted beans shipped out from Peet’s in Berkeley, California. I remember the late Mr. Peet from my college days there.

A recent study on the effects of roast coffee aroma got quite a lot of publicity. Coffee aroma increased the expression of genes relevant to stress relief: anti-oxidants, energy metabolism, and so on. There were also changes in protein production that had a similar anti-stress pattern. The experiment was done on male rats, so the results probably seem to be directly physiological—not due to fond stress-relieving memories from college coffee shops!

Click here to read the about the study and learn more about it.

Now the list of words and smell for the quick answer are:

  1. Concrete: subway air vents in New York
  2. Popcorn: movie trailers
  3. Bacon: Must have some immediately!
  4. Feet: eh
  5. Vanilla: easy perfumes for nymphets
  6. Shampoo: Americans on the way to work in the morning
  7. Armpit: I’m too close to you
  8. Wool: blankets in an old house
  9. Pencil: third grade
  10. Spearmint: Doublemint gum
  11. Patchouli: Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties
  12. Rain: wet earth, spring time
  13. Dirty underwear: street people

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