Welcome to the Olfactory Jungle: Study Maps How New Yorkers Smell


After five years of studying how New Yorkers process smells, researcher Leslie Vosshall has discovered that we can all agree on two things: vanilla and sweaty socks. Vosshall studied how volunteers responded to 66 scents to create a “smell demography” of New Yorkers, and found that across groups, vanilla was most likely to be ranked the “most pleasant” smell, while isovaleric acid (the active chemical in sock stench) was most likely to be ranked “very unpleasant.” She did find some differences across race: Caucasians are more likely to enjoy the smell of nutmeg, and African Americans rate sandalwood higher.

Discussing her results at the New School’s Headspace: On Scent as Design symposium yesterday, Vosshall said that New Yorkers are highly sensitive to smells, but some are less sensitive than they think.

“We found a whole lot of people who are incredibly into volunteering for smell studies and are completely blind to odors,” she said, adding that unlike people who suffer from blindness, they are “completely unaware” of their inability to detect scents.

The study found a “strange correlation between smelling and body mass,” with both overweight and underweight subjects showing lower acuteness. The best able to make out scents, it turns out, are young women who don’t smoke.

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