Your body's hidden language: How smell reveals more than you ever knew

Your body’s hidden language: How smell reveals(rəˈvēl) more than you ever knew

We can sniff(snif) out fear, find solace(ˈsäləs) in the smell of a loved one, breathe(brēT͟H) in the scent(sent) of happiness. How we’re deciphering(dəˈsīfər) the subliminal(səˈblimənl) signals of human scent

By Kate(ā) Douglas(ˈdəgləs)

I am standing in a bright(brīt) and airy(ˈe(ə)rē) converted(kənˈvərt) barn(bärn) in the English countryside sniffing vials(ˈvī(ə)l) of pure(pyo͝or) armpit(ˈärmˌpit) odour(ˈōdər). The contents(kənˈtent,ˈkänˌtent) of these five tiny bottles are so pungent(ˈpənjənt) they actually knock me back. I’m getting top notes of cheeses(CHēz) – stinky(ˈstiNGkē) as they come – lots of sulphurous(ˈsəlfərəs) onion(ˈənyən) and a hit of ammonia(-nēə,əˈmōnyə). The least(lēst) offensive(əˈfensiv) has a citrusy(ˈsitrəsē) undertone(ˈəndərˌtōn). The bottles are provided by Camille Ferdenzi of the French National Centre(ˈsen(t)ər) for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Lyon, whose work includes recruiting(rəˈkro͞ot) volunteers(ˌvälənˈtir) to sniff sweaty(ˈswedē) T-shirts. Clearly, studying human smells isn’t for the squeamish(ˈskwēmiSH).

Our bodily(ˈbädl-ē) scents provide a channel of communication that evolved(ēˈvälv) to help us survive and thrive(THrīv), and in recent years Ferdenzi and others have revealed this language to be far richer than we realised. We have now discovered that each person’s scent is unique – not even identical(ˌīˈden(t)ək(ə)l) twins smell exactly alike. Each of us also has a one-of-a-kind nose for smells. What’s more, we have learned that scents wafting(wäft, waft) from our bodies and wisping(wisp) into our nostrils(ˈnästrəl) help us to forge(fôrj) family bonds and draw us to partners, divert(dəˈvərt, dīˈvərt) us from danger, illness(ˈilnəs) and aggression(əˈgreSHən), and even allow us to sniff other people’s happiness.

Yet throughout history and across cultures, people have scrubbed(skrəb), perfumed(ˌpərˈfyo͞omd) and deodorised(dēˈōdəˌrīz) to disguise(disˈgīz) their natural smells – perhaps never more than today. “Every day, we control our olfactory(älˈfakt(ə)rē, ōlˈfakt(ə)rē) image,” says Ferdenzi. If these smells are such a powerful form of communication, our aversion(əˈvərZHən) to them is puzzling(ˈpəz(ə)liNG). And recent evidence suggests we are getting less stinky(ˈstiNGkē) and losing(lo͞oz) the ability to detect(dəˈtekt) certain scents.