Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Hyperosmia and the Elastic Mind

Design and the Elastic Mind, MOMA, 2008. James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau, Design Interactions Dept., Royal College of Art. 

Penicillium Saprophyticus is a kind of mold that comes around in autumn, when the living tissue of the woodlands begins its seasonal decomposition. At the helm of the HMS Entropy are the roaming swarms of saprophytes that live off of dying plants. In small doses their smell can be intoxicating. The haunting smell of crushed leaves in autumn is not without a touch of this mold.

Just as the seasons, weather events bring their own aromatic indicators. The smell when it’s about to snow, river musk on now-dry floodplains after a severe summer flooding, the smell of the beach on the same floodplains after severe hurricane flooding, and plenty of mold during a mismatching of seasonal characteristics – these all announce the ever-changing and rebirthing of an ecosystem. 

Some people smell strongly of civet, some simply have evaporated cat piss all over them, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Civet, like lots of smells, is good at low doses, but bad when high, and people become desensitized over time. Many perfumes use civet, on purpose, for this reason. Many grandmothers are avoided, for the same. (Blackcurrant buds give off the same smell, and are used in perfumery.)

Furfural mercaptans are strong – coffee, cannabis, skunkpiss. They intermingle, both in molecular presence, and redintegrated perception. In a classroom, one might smell diesel exhaust, barely perceptible, somehow coming through a labyrinth of antiquated air vents.

Then there is the smell of lactose being processed in the body, on a scale from skim milk, through butter, to mozzarella cheese. Poison ivy (which I get every August) smells like something, though I cannot name it – it is the smell of my own body metabolizing urushiol.


Where Science and Design Collide, a Few Weird Sights to Behold
John Schwartz, February 26, 2008, nytimes
ART AND SCIENCE: The show “Design and the Elastic Mind,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, features items like “Smell +,” left, whose designer, James Auger, said he wanted to underscore the diminished importance the sense of smell had in our lives by creating a device that allowed people to smell each other’s bodily scents before they met.
Design and the Elastic Mind
Paola Antonelli, MoMA, 2008
James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau
Design Interactions Dept., Royal College of Art, viaMoMA

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Japanese Aesthetic

 Reading a bit about urban planning lately, and this one comes up a lot:

Around the year 2000, Japan’s Ministry of the Environment decided to establish protection for 100 sites around their country because they smell good. Yup – here in the US, we’re having trouble protecting our own damn water supply, and Japan is thinking about their national smellscape. I’ve read about this more than once now, but an internet search makes it seem like it’s not real.

And I keep coming across the same passage:

…sea mist of Kushiro to the Nanbu rice cracker of Morioka, not to mention the distinct smell of glue that hangs in the air around the doll craftsmen’s homes in Koriyama, all now have protected status...
-seems to have been written by Victoria Henshaw in her book Urban Smellscapes, 2013.

But here’s another one:

…vegetation (‘a hundred thousand peach blossoms at a glance’), food (‘rice cracker of Morioka’), and urban odours (‘streets of used bookstores’)

And since we’re talking about Japan, we can’t forget that really important thing about how smell is regarded differently across cultures. In Japan, and other Eastern countries, fragrance is not something that you wear on your body, but something that is in the environment around you. Maybe, or probably, this has something to do with the fact that the Japanese, and other Asian cultures, have no body odor. If you don’t believe me, you might want to ride the subway in Tokyo during rush hour.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Anthropogenic Aroma Compounds

aka Human Body Odor
aka apocrine bromhidrosis, axillary osmidrosis
aka Is that Me [I Smell]?

Body odor network graph

Sweat doesn't smell, per se; what smells is the metabolism of skin flora. These are colonies of bacteria that live on your armpits, but can also be found around the areola, anogenital, and navel regions.

Kids don't smell the same as adults, because the bacteria haven't colonized their bodies yet. Old people, it seems, smell different because they produce a chemical referred to as, simply, "old people smell" (see below: trans-2-Nonenal).

Below are some aroma compounds produced by the human body, via either sweat or urine:

Methyl hexanoate
ethereal, pineapple

Methyl octanoate
citurs-like, fruity, green-like

Methyl nonanoate

Methyl decanoate
oily, fruity, wine-like

all methyl -noates
fatty acid esters; found in human sweat, possibly related to odor preference mate selection; some share the same chemical formula with Propyl hexanoate aka propyl caproate, ethyl heptanoate, butyl pentanoate; scent of propyl hexanoate described as blackberries, pineapple, cheese or wine

4-Hydroxybutanoic acid lactone
caramel; perhaps related to Hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) -
produced as a result of fermentation, and so is found in small quantities in some beers and wines; structurally related to the ketone body beta-hydroxybutyrate, although that is technically a carboxylic acid; perhaps related to diabetes and hangovers

lemon, lime, orange, oily, rose, apple, coconut, grape, grapefruit, melon, peach, meaty, nutty, vegetable-like, waxy; aka Nonanaldehyde, pelargonaldehyde; an alkyl aldehyde; produced by the human body and attracts mosquitos; responsible for the “smell of metal” along w decanal and the main component Oct-1-en-3-one (1-octen-3-one)

ethereal, apple; propanone; active ingredient in nail polish remover and paint thinner; normally present in blood and urine. People with diabetes produce it in larger amounts; it is the ketone produced by the body in the metabolism of fats; produced by the liver whenever the liver has to produce glucose at a very high rate, such as in diabetes

Vanillic acid
chocolate, creamy, grape, nutty, wine-like

4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzoic acid; a dihydroxybenzoic acid derivative; oxidized form of vanillin; found in the root of Angelica sinensis, and Açaí oil Euterpe oleracea; main natural phenol in argan oil; found in wine and vinegar; main catechins metabolites found in humans after consumption of green tea infusions

Butyric acid
cheese; systematic name butanoic acid; found in milk and as a product of anaerobic fermentation (including in the colon and as body odor); fishing bait additive, component of vomit, used in stink bombs; fermentation of butyric acid is also found as a hexyl ester hexyl butyrate in the oil of Heracleum giganteum (a type of hogweed) and as the octyl ester octyl butyrate in parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)

animal-like, chocolate, honey, vanilla, musty, earthy, butter, cheese, fatty, jasmine, grape, vegetable-like, wine-like; an amine; aromatic heterocyclic organic compound; produced by bacteria as a degradation product of the amino acid tryptophan; occurs naturally in human feces and coal tar; intense fecal odor; flowery smell concentrations; natural jasmine oil contains around 2.5% of indole

Floral; 3-methylindole; belongs to the indole family; occurs naturally in feces (it is produced from tryptophan in the mammalian digestive tract) and coal tar; strong fecal odor; flowery smell in low concentrations; found in orange blossoms, jasmine, and Ziziphus mauritiana; used by U.S. military in its non-lethal weaponry

floral; shrub of genus Jasminum; chemical constituents include methyl anthranilate, indole, benzyl alcohol, linalool, and skatole

Fumaric acid
sour; found in fumitory (Fumaria officinalis), bolete mushrooms (specifically Boletus fomentarius var. pseudo-igniarius), lichen, and Iceland moss; Human skin naturally produces fumaric acid when exposed to sunlight; product of the urea cycle; provides sourness; a Trans-Butenedioic Acid

Lauric acid
fatty; systematically: dodecanoic acid; saturated fatty acid; faint odor of bay oil or soap; as a component of triglycerides, comprises about half of the fatty acid content in coconut oil, laurel oil, and in palm kernel oil; found in human breast milk (6.2% of total fat), cow's milk (2.9%), and goat's milk (3.1%)

Isovaleric acid
animal-like, cheese; a fatty acid; strong pungent cheesy or sweaty smell; major component of the cause of unpleasant foot odor, as it is produced by skin bacteria Staphylococcus epidermidis (which is also present in several strong cheese types) metabolizing leucine; volatile esters have pleasing scents; produced by the oxidation of hop resins in beer, where it is seen as a defect

Phenethyl acetate
balsamic, floral, citrus, fruity, wine-like; Part of the characteristic odor of Camembert cheese, along w biacetyl (buttery flavoring for popcorn), 3-methylbutanal, methional (degradation product of methionine), 1-octen-3-ol and 1-octen-3-one (degradation products of fats), 2-undecanone, decalactone

fatty, waxy; 4-Hydroxynonenal; a,ß-unsaturated hydroxyalkenal; found throughout animal tissues; found in Clitopilus prunulus, commonly known as the miller or the sweetbread mushroom; cucumber odor of this species has been attributed to trans-2-nonenal, which is present at a concentration of 17 µg per gram of crushed tissue; see 2-Nonenal: an unsaturated aldehyde; with human body odor alterations during aging, old-person smell, smell of old books, aged beer and buckwheat

Oleic acid, natural
fatty; a monosaturated fatty acid; occurs naturally in various animal and vegetable fats and oils; monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid; term related to olive, predominantly composed of oleic acid; makes up 59-75% of pecan oil, 61% of canola oil, 36-67% of peanut oil, 60% of macadamia oil, 20-85% of sunflower oil (the latter in the high oleic variant), 15-20% of grape seed oil, sea buckthorn oil, and sesame oil, and 14% of poppyseed oil; constituting 37 to 56% of chicken and turkey fat and 44 to 47% of lard; most abundant fatty acid in human adipose tissue; emitted by the decaying corpses of a number of insects to signal removal of dead bodies

Trimethylamine solution
oily, fishy, meaty; tertiary amine; strong "fishy" odor in low concentrations and an ammonia-like odor at higher concentrations; Trimethylaminuria is a genetic disorder in which the body is unable to metabolize trimethylamine from food sources, Patients develop a characteristic fish odour of their sweat, urine, and breath after the consumption of choline-rich foods

medicinal; major component in pig odor, human sweat; traditionally extracted from coal tar

trans-3-Methyl-2-hexenoic acid
(TMHA) is an unsaturated short-chain fatty acid that occurs in sweat secreted by the axillary apocrine glands of Caucasians and some Asians.[1]
Hexanoic acids such as TMHA have an hircine odor. Of the fatty acids contributing to Caucasian men's axillary (underarm) odor, TMHA has the most prominent odor.

*Information taken from Sigma Aldrich Flavor and Fragrance Catalog, 2013.
**wiki-scraped description fragments are meant for contextualization/disambiguation only.
***see this chart for visualization of the body odor smell network:  fusiontables

"The Smell of Ammonia in Your Sweat"

When too much nitrogen is present in your system, your body depends on the kidneys to process the excess nitrogen. This process creates urea, which can then be expelled through your urine. However, when there is too much for the kidneys to even process, then the excess nitrogen is secreted as ammonia through your sweat. When you exercise and sweat at a greater rate than normal, enough ammonia escapes for you to actually smell it…(or when your kidneys are under stress, thus processing less, and sending more through as sweat?).

Saturday, September 16, 2017

On Allergies and Sensitization

Writing about smell will get you thinking about nuisance odors and about folks who think that smells are making them sick. A lot of this has to do with allergies, and allergies can be a tricky thing. There is no threshold for the amount of a thing that will elicit a reaction, and so allergies tend to be modulated by our own minds, at least to some extent. In other words, if you’re stressed, or if you’re thinking way too much about these allergies and their allergens and the environment where they come from, you may amplify the effects, and you may start sneezing or scratching at the most miniscule of exposures.

The way allergies work in the body is pretty damn confusing. There’s different kinds of allergies, some are hardwired, we might say, and some are ‘learned’ by the body. Some allergies can be deadly, like a shellfish allergy that closes your throat. Some can be just annoying, but won’t kill you or send you to the hospital (unless your body gets so hijacked by your own histamines that you smash your head into a wall).

All this being said, when I came across this short explanation on how allergies work, and I found it to be somewhat comprehendible, I thought I should repeat it here.

Most chemicals and their metabolic products are not sufficiently large enough to be recognized by the immune system as a foreign substance and thus must first combine with an endogenous protein [something that comes from inside the body not outside, endo- vs exo-] to form an antigen (or immunogen). Such a molecule is called a hapten. The hapten-protein complex (antigen) is then capable of eliciting the formation of antibodies. Subsequent exposure to the chemical results in an antingen-antibody interaction, which provokes the typical manifestations of allergy that range in severity from minor skin disturbance to fatal anaphylactic shock.
-Essentials of Toxicology, Casarett and Doull

Got all that? The “allergic reaction” is really an antigen-antibody reaction. It is your body fighting an intruder, and you are the collateral damage.


Please take a look at another post called The Dangers of Smell and Perfumes in the Workplace but it’s based on this article: perfume in the workplace, which is an interesting look inside the work of an HR worker who has to deal with employees complaining about their smelly coworkers, and soothing the hypersensitive worker who thinks their coworker’s perfume is making them sick (it’s not; unfortunately, it’s your own mind doing that). 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Olfaction and Mental Health

Image: Ship of Fools, a reference to Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization

The following article/abstract is quoted here as an introduction to the practice of using olfaction to better understand mental health:

Grete Kjelvik , Hallvard R. Evensmoen , Veronika Brezova , Asta K. Håberg, Journal of Neurophysiology. Published 15 July 2012. Vol. 108, No. 2, 645-657 DOI: 10.1152/jn.01036.2010

Odor identification (OI) tests are increasingly used clinically as biomarkers for Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia.

ODOR IDENTIFICATION (OI) tests examine an individual's ability to correctly name an odor. In the clinic OI tests have been shown to have high sensitivity and specificity for predicting Alzheimer's disease (AD) at an early stage. This OI deficit is considered a central phenomenon as olfactory threshold, detection, and discrimination abilities are preserved (Arnold et al. 1998; Morgan et al. 1995; Serby et al. 1991; Wilson et al. 2007, 2009). Since AD pathology is first observed in entorhinal cortex and subsequently in the hippocampus (Braak and Braak 1992), OI impairments may arise from medial temporal lobe (MTL) pathology. Indeed, the early and specific OI deficit in AD correlates with the number of tangles in entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus (Wilson et al. 2007), and left hippocampal atrophy (Murphy et al. 2003). Structural changes in the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus are also present in patients with schizophrenia (Baiano et al. 2008; Bogerts et al. 1985; Ebdrup et al. 2010; Schultz et al. 2009; Witthaus et al. 2009), another group of patients with a specific OI deficit (Atanasova et al. 2008; Moberg et al. 1997, 2006; Rupp 2010). The utility of OI tests as a clinical tool depends on a better understanding of the neuronal processes underlying OI, and how OI differs from passive smelling (PS).

This point about smelling mental illness is fantastically queried by the odor author Annick Le Guérer in Scent the Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell (1992), where she plays with the possibility of the “odor of sanctum” reported to emanate from certain saintly corpses as a result of extensive abnormal mental states which lower, or encumber the metabolic rate, leading to incomplete combustion of aromatic materials in the body. She reciprocates by suggesting such lower metabolism as a result of sustained meditation. Regardless, it is a general understanding that psychosis brings with it an identifiable smell.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Avian Navigation

Pigeons were fitted with mini Ticka watch cameras in 1908 by Dr Julius Neubronner to take aerial photos.
Aug 2017, BBC
Researchers from the universities of Oxford, Barcelona and Pisa temporarily removed seabirds' sense of smell before tracking their movements. … They found the birds could navigate normally over land, but appeared to lose their bearings over the sea. … This suggests that they use a map of smells to find their way when there are no visual cues.

Is there ever such thing as an animal that doesn’t use smell to navigate? Or anything for that matter? Humans use smell to “navigate.” We find the nipple by smell. We find mates by smell. (This is one of the few things about “pheromones” that’s unequivocally evidenced – it’s not the pheromones, and besides we don’t have pheromone receptors, but we do tend to like smells from people with compatible immune systems.) I really love how Alexandra Horowitz, in her book Being A Dog, describes the dog actively mapping its environment by its smells. I like how pet detectives find your escaped cat by drizzling your own urine outside your apartment complex so they have a point of familiarity to home-in on. And how could you not love this Florida woman who bottled her own scent so she could be found later as an Alzheimer’s wanderer.