Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell


Why do some people like a certain aroma and others hate it? Is smell personal or cultural? How does it affect our choices and our actions?

The Scent of Desire is the definitive psychological study of the importance of smell in our lives, from nourishment to procreation to our relationships with other people and the world at large. Located in the same part of the brain that processes emotion, memory, and motivation, this most essential of senses is imperative to our physical and ...

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The Scent of Desire

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Why do some people like a certain aroma and others hate it? Is smell personal or cultural? How does it affect our choices and our actions?

The Scent of Desire is the definitive psychological study of the importance of smell in our lives, from nourishment to procreation to our relationships with other people and the world at large. Located in the same part of the brain that processes emotion, memory, and motivation, this most essential of senses is imperative to our physical and emotional well-being. It was crucial to our ancestors' existence and it remains so today, profoundly shaping our emotional, physical, and even sexual lives.

One of the world's leading experts on the psychology of smell, Rachel Herz investigates how smell functions, what purpose it serves, and how inextricably it is linked to our survival in this compelling, surprising, delightfully informative appreciation of the wonders of this sadly neglected sense.

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Editorial Reviews

Steven Pinker
“This is a spicy perfume of a book, redolent with fascinating facts and provocative hypotheses.”
Christophe Laudamiel
“A great reference book that everyone should read. An excellent overview of the sense of smell. It kills some of the myths that have long been corrupting Perfumery and explains where the higher debates should really be. Thank you, Rachel Herz, for gathering these facts about olfaction in one place.”
Washington Post Book World
“Fascinating . . . A serious book, with many whiffs of delight.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science
THE SCENT OF DESIRE was a finalist for the 2009 AAAS Excellence in Science Writing Award
USA Today
“You’ll never take your nose for granted again once you’ve read The Scent of Desire.”
Curled Up with a Good Book
“Charming. A reminder that life without aromas...would be sad indeed.”
“Astounding and sometimes mind-boggling with (a) wonderfully charming voice and writing style.”
Weekly Standard
“Filled with intriguing bits of information.”
Bunny Crumpacker
There's much more here that's fascinating: Humans have 20 million olfactory receptors in our noses (more receptors than in any other sensory system except vision), while dogs have approximately 220 million; electronic noses are also better at smelling than we are; smells are perceived differently in different cultures; as we age, some of us lose the sense of smell; newborn babies and their mothers recognize each other by their body smells…this is a serious book, with many whiffs of delight, even if the title is a little deceiving.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Herz, a Brown University professor specializing in the psychology of smell, demonstrates that this sense is vital to our well being-so important to mental and physical health that its loss can drive some people to suicide. Herz explores the relationships between scent, emotion and behavior, emphasizing that scent is an important component of sexual attraction and thus crucial for the survival of our species. Many intriguing facts enliven her book. For example, scents are intimately connected to memory and can be used as memory aids; olfaction shuts down while we are asleep; newborns and their mothers recognize each other by their scent. Herz debunks the mystique of aromatherapy, which she says is effective because of our emotional associations with scents rather than because of any direct action of the scent. Emerging technologies of scent, such as electronic noses that can sniff out terrorists, breath analyzers that can detect diseases and marketing theories based on scents, are given a chapter, but Herz admits that she would rather see the development of technologies to restore the sense of smell to people who have lost it, because for her, scent "is essential to our humanity." This illuminating book argues convincingly that the sense of smell should never be taken for granted. (Oct. 9)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Adult/High School -According to Herz, most odors are regarded as good or bad because of emotional or cultural associations, and none are universally experienced as one or the other. The author is recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the sense of smell, and in this book she takes a look at its physiology and psychology. The text is filled with interesting anecdotes and intriguing scientific studies about smell and its relation to human health and well-being. Herz hops around from subject to subject and has a few annoying habits (like referring to researchers she knows by their first names and researchers she doesn't know by their last names), but the volume is compelling nonetheless. Teens with an interest in psychology or biology will find this a readable source of fascinating facts.-Sarah Flowers, Santa Clara County Library, CA

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively, seductive exploration of what the nose knows. Pity olfaction, the least celebrated of the five senses: In one poll, people ranked smell as the sense they'd mind losing the least. But, says Herz (Psychology/Brown Univ.), one of a handful of researchers doing groundbreaking work on the psychology of smell, the ability to smell the world around us shapes and informs every part of our lives-particularly our emotional existence. When robbed of a sense of smell-whether through head injury, severe depression or other cause-we lose a vital connection to the material world and its sensual pleasures. In thoughtful and accessible writing, Herz explains why it is that smells act as such direct conduits to emotional memories-think Proust and his famous madeleines-and why they have such a profound ability to affect our well-being (consider the lingering and distinctive smell in New York City after 9/11 and the power it had over the memories of its residents). Demystifying-and in some cases, debunking-everything from aromatherapy to the mysterious disorder Multiple Chemical Sensitivities to the bizarre circumstances surrounding the 1997 suicide of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, Herz explains the neural and physical bases of scent perception and the idiosyncratic ways in which smells become tied to particular experiences. But her explanations of why we smell are perhaps the most fascinating. Smell not only underlies the ability to tell which meat is rotten and which is fresh, but also potently affects sexual attraction, and not as Coco Chanel might have thought (the grande dame of fashion once said, "Without perfume, women have no future."). Before you apply deodorant tomorrow morning,consider that it is in fact the natural body odors we spend so much time trying to cloak that most inform who we will choose to mate with and who we will avoid. A delightfully unexpected blend of personal anecdotes, pop-cultural erudition and scientific understanding. Agent: Wendy Strothman/Strothman Agency, LLC
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060825386
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/14/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 806,288
  • Product dimensions: 7.74 (w) x 5.08 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Since 2000, Rachel Herz, Ph.D., has been on the faculty of Brown University. She has appeared on the Discovery Channel, ABC News, the BBC, National Public Radio, and the Learning Channel, and is the subject of a Scientific American profile piece.

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Read an Excerpt

The Scent of Desire

Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell
By Rachel Herz

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Rachel Herz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060825379

Chapter One

the sense of desire

Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.

On November 22, 1997, Michael Hutchence, lead singer for the internationally renowned Australian band INXS, was found hanging naked in his hotel bedroom, the noose tied with his own leather belt. The last person to see him alive, onetime fling and longtime friend Kym Wilson, was at first suspected to be complicit. She insisted that she and her boyfriend had left Michael fully clothed the night before after a visit in his hotel room. Kym was soon relieved of suspicion and suicide confirmed as the mode of death. But why would the excessively successful and apparently want-free Michael Hutchence take his own life? What could have drawn him into such a deep depression that he would ultimately kill himself? Various accounts by friends and associates, including interviews with Michael Hutchence himself, point to a pivotal and life-altering event that could very well be the precipitating link to his suicide.

In September 1992, Michael Hutchence was in a freak traffic accident. Riding his bicycle home from a nightclub inCopenhagen, he was struck by a car and suffered a fractured skull. In an interview a few months after Michael's death, the journalist Robert Milliken reported in a feature in The Independent (March 1998), that: "His friends are convinced that the accident was a turning point that led to increasing bouts of depression and reliance on Prozac." Richard Lowenstein, the avant-garde Australian filmmaker, told Milliken that ever since the accident Michael was on a slow decline. He had never seen any evidence of depression, erratic behavior, or violent temper before, but saw all those things afterward, and he confessed that one night in Melbourne, Michael had broken down in his arms and sobbed: "I can't even taste my girlfriend anymore."

What was it about this accident that so scarred Michael Hutchence? Did he suffer undiscovered brain damage with pathological effects, or was it something more basic and obvious? Michael was a devout hedonist and completely sensual being.1 A self-confessed decadent, Michael's gourmand tastes and lust for life were centered around consumption, and now these lascivious pleasures were irrevocably altered, because the accident had stolen his sense of smell. Without the sense of smell, the temptations of food, the sweaty funk of sex, the essence of a walk on the beach, the feeling of nostalgia—the texture of life itself—were robbed from him. From all accounts, after this accident Michael fell into an increasingly debilitating depression from which he never emerged. As his melancholy progressed, he resorted more and more to both prescription and illicit drugs and alcohol, but these mind-numbing devices were in vain. Could it be that losing his sense of smell, which killed his most basic life pleasures, had such a cataclysmic effect on his well-being that he felt life no longer worth living? From all I know about the sense of smell and the consequences of its loss, this could very well be so.

My suspicion that loss of smell, medically referred to as anosmia (smell blindness), was a crucial factor in the suicide of Michael Hutchence is based on my insights into neurological, psychological, and clinical evidence. First, the neurological interconnection between the sense of smell (olfaction) and emotion is uniquely intimate. The areas of the brain that process smell and emotion are as intertwined and codependent as any two regions in the brain could possibly be. Smell and emotion are located in the same network of neural structures, called the limbic system. The limbic system is the ancient core of the brain, sometimes called the reptilian brain because we share it with reptiles, and sometimes called the rhinencephalon—literally, the "nose-brain." The key limbic structure to interact with our olfactory center is the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain's locus of emotion. Without an amygdala we cannot experience or process emotional experiences, we cannot express our own emotions, and we cannot learn and remember emotional events. Brain imaging studies have shown that when we perceive a scent the amygdala becomes activated, and the more emotional our reaction to the scent, the more intense the activation is. No other sensory system has this kind of privileged and direct access to the part of brain that controls our emotions.

Clinical research on patients who have lost their sense of smell also suggests that Michael Hutchence's anosmia could have led him to suicide. After an acute trauma such as a head injury, which causes anosmia, patients often report a loss of interest in normally pleasurable pursuits, feelings of sadness, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, loss of motivation, inability to concentrate, and thoughts of suicide that can turn into action if not treated.2 These symptoms are all key diagnostics for major depression as described by the DSM-IV,3 the clinician's bible for classifying psychological disorders. The link between smell loss and depressive symptoms is correlational in humans, but cause and effect has been experimentally verified in laboratory animals. Rats who have had their olfactory bulbs surgically removed, and thereby can no longer perceive smells, display physiological and behavioral changes that are strikingly similar to those that occur in depressed people. They stop eating, lie around their cages, and are oblivious to the toys and activities that they normally vigorously enjoy.

Studies of people afflicted with anosmia also indicate that the development of depression is progressive. In one study that contrasted the trauma of being blinded or becoming anosmic after an accident, it was found that those who were blinded initially felt much more traumatized by their loss than those who had lost their sense of smell. But follow-up analyses on the emotional health of these patients one year later showed that the anosmics were faring much more poorly than the blind. The emotional health of anosmic patients typically continues to deteriorate with passing time, in some cases requiring hospitalization and in more tragic cases, such as Michael Hutchence's, ending in suicide.


Excerpted from The Scent of Desire by Rachel Herz Copyright © 2007 by Rachel Herz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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