The smell of the future

February 22, 1991

For some species the nose is the critical sensory organ. We can watch a bloodhound sniff the wind, but a mere human can't begin to imagine the amount of information the animal gleans from it. Because we humans see and hear so much, it's understandable that we sometimes forget the ways that other senses influence us.

In a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, fragrance scientists offered evidence that periodic whiffs of pleasurable smells like peppermint or lavender can enhance concentration and keep people more alert. Already, of course, the effect of pleasurable smells is being tested in various settings -- on clerical workers, subway riders and medical patients. Don't be surprised if employers soon pay as much attention to the smells their workers encounter on the job as they do now to the lighting, background music or temperature and humidity in offices.

But smells can be a tricky business. Peppermint seems to make people more alert and improve their moods. Yet it might also make people more inclined to take risks. So if you're designing the "fragrance environment" for an air traffic controller, would you want to include peppermint? Apparently, such nose-teasing questions are the smell of the future.

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