Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Scents of smell

Good sniffin'This is a really off-topic sort of conversation, but it is something that has intrigued me ever since I had kids. No, I'm not referring to the heightened sense of smell you have when you are pregnant, although there is certainly something interesting in that from a biological adaptation standpoint. What I'm talking about is the baby and child's ability to identify their mother by smell.

This totally makes sense to me, particularly if you are breastfeeding. Your newborn, with its fuzzy vision, is able to identify you by your smell and I always assumed it was mostly based on compounds from lactation. But, I'm pretty sure it goes beyond that to actual personal body scent.

I know this sounds really strange, but my kids, who are nowhere near newborn age and I'm nowhere near lactating, are always identifying my objects (clothes, pillow, blankets, etc.) with a declaration of "smells like Mom". And it's always said with a real fondness and joy in their voices that makes me believe it doesn't smell like Mom in a bad way.

Last night, as I was cuddled on the couch reading to my son, he buried his nose in my chest and declared the "smells like Mom" thing again and then dove in for a more pronounced sniff, like he was breathing in a rose. It was a little strange, but mostly funny and I just couldn't get past this whole idea of scent recognition. His reaction was one of comfort and happiness as if my pits were some sort of calming elixir.

So, I started thinking about how individuals have their own smell. Yet, I can't really identify anyone from their body odor, except my Mom, even to this day. Now, we must either be stinky people or I am experiencing a throwback to something that had a real and biological purpose somewhere in our mammalian ancestry.

One article that I read last month in the New Scientist describes the secret signals in human sweat, which contains more than 2000 different compounds.

Pheromones are something of a sensitive subject in human biology. Though they are found across the animal world from insects to mammals, research into human pheromones has been dogged by flaky experimental designs and dubious commercial endorsements, with the result that the entire field has a whiff of the disreputable about it. "It's not so much that the jury is out, but that the jury has been dismissed before the trial has begun," says Mike Meredith, a neuroscientist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who studies animal pheromones.

In recent years, though, this has begun to change. Evidence that animal pheromones don't always work in they way we thought, backed up by a growing number of brain-imaging studies in humans, is convincing some researchers that we really do make and respond to pheromones. As a result some think it's time to stop asking if human pheromones exist and start investigating exactly how they affect our behaviour.

The research into how we can smell fear in sweat is really fascinating and some have even commented on its ability to be used as a weapon, joking whether the military was planning to use pheromones to send people "stampeding like spooked cattle".

But while the scientists are still trying to figure out what role pheromones play in human scent communication, do you have any experience with identifying people by scent? If you have kids, do they sniff you out too?


Anonymous said...

My children used to do this a lot. Now they are grown up my youngest is still a sniffer! She sometimes puts my dressing gown on because it smells of me! Sweet and strange at the same time.

livnletlrn said...

Just yesterday, I was wearing a hand-me-down shirt from my sister. My 14 y.o. son walked into my office and immediately said, "You smell like Aunt Brenda." I told him it was her shirt. "Yeah, definitely didn't smell like you. She smells good, but you smell better."

Alexandra said...

When my brother was a baby and anyone would come over to care for us, my mom would leave whatever sweater/shirt she had worn that day for the babysitter to wear or put near my brother if he was fussy or having a hard time going to sleep and it ALWAYS worked.

Jena said...

I don't have kids and I don't remember that with my own parents, but I do remember my older cousin having a distinct smell. Maybe it was something she wore but I remember being really little and mentioning it to my parents. She babysat me a lot so I had lots of chances to sit on her lap, etc. and sniff her out! :) We're still good friends today and I don't notice anything now.

Anonymous said...

I think I could identify most of my family members...including my grandparents. My kids definitely know my scent and my husbands. My 2 year old likes to sleep with his head wedged in my armpit. Poor kid.

When I first met my husband one of the things that really struck me about him was how his scent was exactly like my grandfather's, who was the most positive and influential male role model in my life. Freud would have a field day with that one!

Unknown said...

Definitely :) I can tell the difference between my mom, my grandparents, my husband, and my kiddo. I love it. What I find interesting is males (adult) don't seem to have the same keen sense of smell.

Jennifer said...

I can identify my husband by scent! :) And my sister, too. I don't know if I can identify my mother anymore...

I LOVE the smell of my husband, even after working out or whatever (NOT after things get RIPE, but that's just that).

Anonymous said...

This is something I was just thinking about yesterday. My parents used to let us sleep in their bed sometimes and whenever I go to their house and use their bed to nurse my son, there's something comforting about laying on their pillows because of the scent.
I know that my husband has a specific scent, because whenever my kids have been sitting with him and then come to me, they smell like him (it's a good thing!).
I don't think it's all pheremones, because my husband wears pretty strong body spray, but at the end of the day he always smells the same. I have a particularly strong sense of smell, though, and almost anything I smell that is familiar brings certain images to mind.

Mist said...

I remember that after my mom died, my brother and I would just stand next to her closet full of clothes and inhale. There was definitely something distinctly "mom" there that eased us.

Now it would be my husband's scent that I could identify anywhere, even above that of my kids. If he goes to work early or something, I roll over and just breathe in his pillow. Mmmmm. :)

Oh! My weirdest one is probably that I was really, really ill at about age 14. It's THE sickest I've ever been, and my parents chose that week to go on vacation. I was stuck staying at my uncle's house which, while not unfamiliar, was definitely not home. Both of my ears were badly infected, so my equilibrium was way off, and I kept feeling as if the bed were tipping or rocking. Then my aunt replaced my fever sweat-soaked pillow with one that my baby cousin had slept on just the night before and the tipping sensations stopped. It was like his scent was some sort of anchor for my brain to hold onto. Very strange.

Alison Kerr said...

Yes, I love it when I get a parcel from my sister or mom in law because it has their scent. Even my kids noticed it. Also, when someone comes to stay, after they leave I like to go into my guest room and I feel comforted that their scent lingers.

My kids smell sweet to me. They still have the same scent they had as babies. I'll not talk about hubby's scent except to say that it's something I enjoy :-)

Farmgirl Cyn said...

My mom's been gone nearly 10 years, and I still can smell her when I wear an old sweater of hers. Very comforting, in an odd sort of way.
Also, years ago, when our now 19 yo son was nursing, I wet nursed a 3 week old baby for some friends. She was just OK with it, but a few weeks later, when asked again, she would have no part of me! She knew her mama, and I was not her!

Unknown said...

I'm the oldest of five daughters, being 12 years older than the youngest. She is now 14, and still identifies me by my smell, my whole family does. Everytime I go home, they sniff me!

I always thought it was just a combination of my laundry soap, shampoo, etc. But that's all changed and they still smell like me.

I know my mom smells a little like lavender and baking bread and my grandma always smells like good, clean sheets! I also can distinctly pick out my father and my husband. My younger sisters are harder for me though, probably since most of my time spent around them involved baby vomit and diapers :)

There is definitely something to it.

Anonymous said...

I can definitely pick out my sisters by smell. I think one of them smells better than the other, but don't tell her I said so. They say they know my smell as well, but I don't know what that smell is.

A friend of mine has a smell so strong that he can fill up a room with it, and it lingers when he leaves. It's not BO; it's just his smell.

I've been wondering about people's smells recently because I have a 3 month old daughter. When she was first born, she had that delicious newborn smell. Mmmm. That's gone now, and I've been wondering what her smell will turn out to be. Right now, she usually smells like breastmilk, puke, and dirty diapers. Yum! ;)

Anonymous said...

My husband and I both love each other's smells. He loves to take whiffs of my hair and I love his chest. We don't have children but I imagine at least in that sense that it could be as simple as the positive associations of being fed and cuddled by one's mother while smelling her scent. I imagine that might be more pronounced for women who breastfeed.

Greenpa said...

Some of my PhD research was based on animal pheromones- from which I quickly got interested in working on human pheromones.

A couple flat statements:

If a "Science News" story today says "scientists have JUST discovered this!" - there is a 90% probability that "scientists KNEW this for a fact- 100 years ago." And some hotshot young PhD who didn't do his homework, but knows how to work the press- just rediscovered it.

Behavioral scientists have had solid proof of the extensive existence of human pheromones since pheromones were discovered. Yes, we produce scents specifically for communications.

A big part of the problem with recognition of them is- they are processed by our brains almost entirely on the subliminal level.

The biggest part of the problem with doing good research on human pheromones is the deep, deep scientific bias AGAINST doing any research that actually shows "humans are like other animals".

I know that sounds odd to people outside the scientific world, but it's a well known- and absolute taboo inside science. You can get ALL your funding canceled- because of the political repercussions from the Religious Rong. So- work on pheromones is dominated by fringe types, poorly funded, poorly reviewed.

Folk wisdom on the subject is very clear- yes, we do recognize our relatives by smell.

I've got some great stories of my own there. Smidgen met her half-brother (a term we never use) Beelar when she was about 4 months old, I think. She immediately was attracted to him, cuddled with him and went to him for comfort. She absolutely did not ever respond to any non-relatives this way. I'm pretty sure she recognized him biologically. Sorting out how much of that was scent; how much of it was recognition of MY relationship to him, behaviorally - or other pathways- would be the work of 10 PhD theses.

Smidgen also cuddles in very close to me for her nap- regardless of how stinky my sweat may be at the moment. Surprised me, the first couple times, and made me uncomfortable. She needed a nap, NOW, I was the parent on duty, and stinky - and no time to become otherwise - so I tried to settle her down without tight cuddling. She wouldn't have it- she wanted to snuggle into my arm tight- and clearly far from being repulsed by my stinkiness; it was comforting to her.

oookay. whatever gets the kid to sleep!

Huge topic; loads of fun.

Yes, Virginia. Humans have olfactory organs- and use them; 24 hours a day. And yes, lots of sex is influenced by scents.

Jenn said...

My mom always smelled like Poli-Grip and cigarettes. Now she doesn't smell like anything.

My brother has always had a really strong, nasty sweaty stink - his house smells bad (mostly from his dogs) and I once had a friend whose stink was so close to my brother that I couldn't hang in his house for long... it was yucky.

Greenpa said...

lol- regarding the "Discovery!!" of old old information - bingo; here's one.

This has been common information among entomologists since at least 1955. I knew it- and I'm not at all an entomologist, in about 1964, I think.

But golly! "Scientists at CORNELL!! have just DISCOVERED this PROMISING new direction!!"

drive me crazy. Something for everyone to know- the Scientific Process; and the PhD - have both been subject to dramatic "inflation". I.e.; x amount of either is worth much less today than 20 years ago.

mudnessa said...

I can recognize my grandmas smell on old clothes, she died in '96. Not sure I readily equate a smell with my mom but definitely with my MIL, but her house is over run with mold and she wears a vanilla spray so it's a moldy vanilla I identify, not a good smell, we don't like accepting gifts and things from her because they are just filled with the smell and probably some mold too.

I do remember as a kid my neighbors we played with a lot were identifiable by scent. It was so odd to me how the whole family smelled alike and I could tell when they were around. That was when I first realized people had their individual smells.

Tara said...

I don't have kids, but I can say this: I'm 37 and my mom is 58. She still smells distinctly like MOM to me (and so does all her stuff). I don't notice it so much in my Dad and my younger siblings, but I do also notice it in my grandparents, even the ones that have passed away (things still smell like them). For me, scent recognition seems to be strongest with the people I'm closest to - my Mom, my husband, my maternal grandparents.

Anonymous said...

Clothes and things can definitely smell like 'someone' I got some hooked pillows from my grandmother when she went into a home. For the longest time... they smelled like her. I can't even describe what that smell was.

I am currently using some natural soap that I bought. Most times when I use it, it brings back smells of my grandmother's soap but sometimes... it brings back the smell of my great aunt.

I don't know that anyone else in my family has a smell.

Anonymous said...

When my little one was dropped off with family members or friends so I could get a break, we'd leave my night shirt that had my smell. That way, in case she wanted to feel safe/secure or comforted she could have me close and it would calm her down. I would also pump by breast milk and having the shirt for family members/friends to use when they needed to feed her also made it easier on the little one.

Also, my husband (now ex, but we're still close) we would put his shirt in her crib with her because he worked many hours. This way she would know who her daddy was and it was as if he was putting her to bed. She would only go down for him, which was a blessing for me, it's always nice to catch a break as a mommy. She to this day, goes up close to him and smells him when she hugs him.

Personally, I don't try to cover up my smell all that much, I like the way I smell. I use the rock now, thanks for getting me onto that, and it's not as strong as it usually can be after a few hours. Also for me, personally, I can identify a good portion of the people in my life based off of smell, and it's very comforting. I know the smell of my significant other and I breathe deep every time I get a hug/greeting.

Pheromones are definitely important for us as humans. I know this because of how comforting still to this day, it is to smell my mom and how quickly my blood pressure goes down and I relax from that smell. I know, because when my daughter is upset and is hurting (missing her dad), nestling into my breasts/armpits brings her comfort where she falls asleep almost immediately.

Anonymous said...

Aftr my mother died, I wound up with some of her clothes that I just couldn't get rid of. In particular there was a night gown, a ratty old thing. I kept it in a dresser drawer - for months, when I opened that drawer I could smell my mother. It was a comforting, beautiful smell. After awhile, the scent disappeared and the nightie went with other old things to a clothing drive.

Kristijoy said...

I can totally detect individual scents if I know the person well and have had the same with others with mine. I can detect my own too.
Pheromones are very awesome.
I don;t know if anyone has also mentioned yet the attraction to some one's scent or repulsion, for mating, some people smell better to you, because you have a genetic compatibility to them. (MHC histocompatability complex) It's weird but I have experienced this with men who I have not found good smelling at all to those who smell fantastic ( and I do mean non adulterated BO on this one.)And it's not diet, I can decect the scents of different foods in someone's diet too, if I am around them long enough.
There have been studies done to see if mothers can detect thier babies by smell as well, and by golly, you do.

Jennifer said...

An interesting aside to this would be the research that women on the pill tend to choose worse mates than women off the pill based on smell/phermones. The research suggests it's because the pill makes your body think it's pregnant, so the woman's body is looking for a family member type to help care for the child, while if not on the pill the woman is looking for a mate to CREATE the child. (All biological, not "thought" about)

Gretchen said...

I remember over the summer when you said you were an avid sweater, and you used that deodorant rock thingy. So, hearing that you have a certain "smell" doesn't surprise me. I love the "smell" of special things. I'm sure I have a smell too, because as a child i had a blankie that I loved the smell of. I'm assuming it smelled like me because it went everywhere with me. It was a crocheted afghan, and I'd weave my index, ring, and pinky fingers through it, and suck my middle finger while the blankie was shoved against my nostrils. suck, sniff, suck, sniff. Sorry... TMI. But, anyway, I have many wonderful memories of my gramma's "smell"... not old-ladyish at all but really, the only word I can think of is FAMILIAR. Maybe because she is FAMILY.

Great post. Love the picture of you and our kids!

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, how is a family-type person who can care for a child a worse mate than one who can get you pregnant? I'm just curious.

Mariano RenterĂ­a said...

I wouldn't say that smells like mom rather than the hole family makes an identifier smell it happens to me when someone forgets clothes at my house I can identify the family by the smell, also my sister does

Anonymous said...

Stored away I have my late amazing and lovely Mothers hat, and when things get tough, I go and smell it, and I am in my 60s now.

This is anonymous because I do post, have my own site and I want to keep it personal!

Anonymous said...

Scent is definitely one of the ways I identify people, and also people's houses. The smell of my mom and dad and their house is still incredibly comfortable to me. I don't remember the house having a smell that was detectable when I lived there, but after coming back from a trip and opening the door, it just smelled like HOME to me. But nothing is as comforting and familiar as hugging my mom!

I can also clearly remember the smell of each of my grandparents, who are all now deceased. Items from their homes still contain some of that smell, and that scent memory is as important as the physical objects themselves are.

And, I love the smell of my husband. When he is out of town, I always sleep on his pillow so his scent is near me. Sometimes I'll even wear a shirt he's already worn, when I need to feel more enveloped in his smell. :)

Anonymous said...

That "anonymous" at 10:56 AM is me. It didn't put my name!

~Heather in TN

jenny_lucey said...

Both of my daughters smell differently, and I love both of their smells. I could smell their little heads all day long.

Erika said...

OMG! I thought I was crazy! I've tried to explain to folks that when I say that I like the smell of someone, or that they smell like themselves, it's not the perfume-y smell of cologne, deodorant, shampoo, laundry soap, etc. It's their smell. My DH doesn't like it when I tell him that I love the smell of him/his skin, he says it's creepy. My dad has accused me of being raised by wolves when I tell him that I knew where he was because I followed his smell... I even have a shirt that my grandma gave me (she died in 2003) in the late 1990's, she wore it once or twice, and I wore it out. I keep it for the sentimental value... but I can still smell her on it - part of the sentimental value, I guess.
I'm so glad I'm not crazy! Or maybe that I'm not the only one that's crazy... :-)


Anonymous said...

The only three people who have distinct smells to me are my Mom, my husband and my daughter. All other people (unless they have rank BO) don't smell like anything to me. The funny thing is, I don't like my mom's smell very much (although I like her!), but I love my husband and daughter's smells.

The Simpleton said...

Yes, my kids are/have been joyous sniffers. (The eldest is 23 now, so he certainly doesn't draw it to my attention if he still does!)

A study I read once (or saw reported on, to be frank) looked at babies' ability to actually wriggle up to their mothers' breast from their mothers' bellies when newly born (the conjecture was about smell of course) but also about mothers' ability to identify their newborns correctly in something like 90 percent of cases solely by smell.

I became aware of this in a visceral way in an airport when my youngest was just crawling age. He crawled over to investigate another nearby child of about the same age (it was a relatively clean bit of carpet at the gate) and when both children returned to their mothers, we picked up our children and sniffed them! It was completely involuntary, and I'd probably done that zillions of times, but it's the first time I was aware of it.

Now I'm conscious of smelling my children when they're ill or have been away for a while. Again, it's not something I do on purpose, just something I catch myself doing!

Kristijoy said...

To the anonymous poster replying to Jennifer: I can help you...
What Jennifer was talking about is that you are looking for kin, smell-wise when PG, these are people who are genetically similar to you.
For a mate, you want someone who is genetically dissimilar to increase genetic diversity and lessen the possibility of genetic defects abnormalities in your offspring.

You WANT to be attracted to people who do not smell like family to breed with. =)

And Erika: you are not alone! at all, my S.O. and I are always sniffing at each other. It's quite endearing really.

Peggy said...

This phenomenon definitely extends past parents, for me at least. When my best friend passed away unexpectedly myself and several other friends spent the day sitting in her room, absorbing the impact. I still remember sitting on her bed, picking up her pillow, and sniffing it. It smelled exactly like Nikki. A combination of clean clothes, candy necklace, and shampoo that was uniquely her. I knew her since kindergarten and we were best friends, so I tend to think that it's linked to love as well as biology.

kimberly said...

i've always kinda been big on scent in general. i know as a kid i was big on my mom's smell, although right now i can't remember what she smells like when i think about it... i have a really strong sense of smell though, and i've always derived comfort from smells. like, i know my boyfriend's smell. i know what his skin smells like, and i smell him on my bed when he's gone. (i don't mean THAT!) and once i borrowed one of his shirts that he'd worn, and i could smell him on it, and it was just so comforting. it felt really safe. i don't know why that is... so i dunno if this is something that people only do with their mother or not, 'cause i love the smell of my boyfriend. whenever i see him i give him a huge hug and i smell his neck while i kiss him. my uncle does this too. whenever he sees us he gives us a kiss on the forehead and smells us while doing it. or maybe it's just my weird family?

Sarah said...

I once saw a study on scent recognition that was on some Discovery-type channel. They had a group of married women, and each of their husbands wore identical, white t-shirts and then proceeded to exercise in them. The shirts were removed and the wives were asked to find which t-shirt belonged to their husband, based on the smell. Bizarre enough, but most of the women could identify their husband's shirt by the smell of his sweat.

Going Crunchy said...

I love this post! I love my husband's smell, especially after he has been "fixing" something. I love my kid's smells, especially around their necks as they get kisses. I can close my eyes and almost imagine my Granny's smell.

What is strangely interesting is when you suddenly encounter a person or place that smells exactly like a person or place in another setting. That wigs me.

I think this topic also ties into being greener. The less use of chemicals then the more you get the natural smell goodness that we are supposed to have.

Greenpa said...

I'm a bit surprised and intrigued by the number of readers here who have had lucid experiences and understandings of their scent connections. It's cool! Tickles my inner researcher- is there a connection to simple intelligence? Could be- or not.

My current belief is that humans have an olfactory capability that is FAR more sensitive than we are told- or realize; or believe. It's all wired into the oldest parts of the brain- and processed subliminally. Mostly.

Conscious access to normally subliminal processes is considered "advanced" mental function- by all the mystic groups. And here we have a bunch of folks doing it without having been trained for 10 years.

Looks like there's something special about your readers, Crunchie.

Sharlene said...

My husband is always saying he loves the way I smell (I don't wear any frilly perfume or anything) but that he can't describe what I smell like. I love the smell of my children. I am certain I could smell my way to my husband. I think its just an art form lost through years of trying to mask body odor.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

I'm used to observing our animals, cattle and dogs mostly use scent to identify, like cows who are sisters but never grew up together, when they see each other, they instantly hang out together. (I know cow's hanging out sounds weird, but they do.)

But, the strangest thing is my daughter smells like my mother! She was born 3 weeks late, making her arrival on my deceased mothers BD.

MrsSpock said...

How funny, I was holding my son today, when my mother stopped by, and I could smell her before she reached the room. I remember thinking, "It smells like Mom".

My son loves to bury his head in my armpit. I always wonder if he finds my scent comforting.

My husband has his own scent, and I was tickled to find that our son has a very similar scent when he was born.

I love the scent of Dove soap, because it smelled like Grandma, though there was more to her scent than just the soap.

Allie said...

No kids here, but I am familiar with identifying people by their scent. I only know my mother's "smell" as one of a specific perfume, but I know and can still precisely remember the smell of every lover I've had in my life, as well as the smells of my closest friends. When I smell something reminiscent of a person I know, it always floods me w/ memories. I one time also moved into an apartment complex simply because the smell of the hallway reminded me of someone I knew who I'd always been very comfortable around.

And my cat, who smells like Fritos.

Anonymous said...

this topic is making me cry, because it makes me remember how my grandmother's scent changed as she was dying. She lived to be really old and as her body shut down everything changed.

I think there are some things that overcome or change people's personal smells - when I was a kid both my grandparents smoked, and when he was a kid my boyfriend's grandparents and aunts and uncles all smoked, so for both of us a whiff of cigarette smoke and coffee smells like childhood and Christmas.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I definitely do this. I can recognize many of my friends by scent. The college I went to was all women, and many of us, including me, could tell instantly if there had been a guy in the dorm because it smelled male, and that was such an unusual smell that all the little mental alert bells would go off. Not stereotypical locker-room stench, smelled like "boy" on a more or less subconscious level. If the guy in question was still in the building, we could probably have creeped him out by tracking him ;-)

jmelyn said...

Hmmm. Generally, Owen tells me I smell like poop.

I wonder what that says about us both.

Tracey said...

ah, all the talk about scents and pheromones is making me miss my boyfriend more. We met online and when I first met him, the only thing I could think about was his smell. I am soo addicted to it and I miss it so much that I keep a dirty shirt of his in a bag so to keep the smell longer. Whenever I need it, I open the bag and take a whiff. It is so comforting to feel it, feel like he is still close to me instead of on the other side of the world.

And, I know its not the smell of shampoo or laundry soap, because no matter what he uses or what he washes his clothes with, everything still smells like him.

It's a shame that research hasn't been done on this more, because it is something that effects all of us, everyday of our live!