Something in the air Dr. Alan Hirsch is not afraid to admit he's inhaled often. And he smells a bright future for odor research.

Ideas: The Science Of Smell

April 19, 1998|By Steve Rhodes | Steve Rhodes,special to the sun

CHICAGO - "We're in the midst of an odor revolution," says Dr. Alan Hirsch.

This is not a statement to sniff at, particularly when uttered by Hirsch. As the man in charge at the Smell & Taste Research and Treatment Foundation here, he is among America's foremost odor investigators; a visionary, if that's possible, in the realm of smell.

At least part of Hirsch's revolution, though, will not be televised - not if the people who make Good & Plenty candy have anything to say about it. They are not exactly keen on the unusual marketing opportunity Hirsch handed them earlier this year, when he pronounced that the aroma of the sugar-encrusted licorice arouses women sexually - especially when mixed with the perfume of a cucumber.

No, they're staying away from this one, Hershey Foods Corp. spokesman Mike Kinney says. Good & Plenty is a family-oriented candy. There will be no provocative ads with Kate Moss, no new cucumber-scented versions.

In fact, Kinney is loath to speak about Hirsch's work at all. "We weren't involved in the study," he says without a snicker. "We prefer not to comment."

This is one of the milder reactions to Hirsch's work, further

detailed in a book out this month, "Scentsational Sex" (Element, $19.95). He made headlines and late-night monologues last month when he reported on several other surprising smells that arouse, including pumpkin pie (men) and baby powder (women).

Hirsch, a slight, delicate-looking man of 42, is used to such uproar. An M.D., neurologist and a psychiatrist who has been in practice for 15 years, he has one foot solidly in the musty world of academia, the other smack in the middle of pop culture, as his appearances on shows from "The McNeil-Lehrer Newshour" to "The Jerry Springer Show" attest.

He takes some kidding from his scientific colleagues, he says, but points out that at least his work gets notice from the outside world. "It brings to the forefront the loss of smell," Hirsch says. "It gives smell consideration."

The whole business of odors, even the notion that a scent could turn you on, is not as strange as it sounds. Just ask the fragrance industry, which takes in billions of dollars a year making people

believe they smell more desirable.

Odors matter. When your nose gets stuffy, food mysteriously loses its taste. The buds on your tongue may work perfectly, but taste, Hirsch points out, is 90 precent smell. Without smell, your world is - aroma-wise - black-and-white.

And when it comes to smell and its importance to sex, well, it's a notion at least as old as Sigmund Freud.

"We have long known what an intimate relation exists in the animal organization between the sexual impulse and the function of the olfactory organs," Freud said in 1908.

He went on to advise that we'd do well to repress our sense of smell, lest we walk around in a constant state of sexual excitement.

Freud may have overestimated the problem, but Hirsch says there does seem to be an obsession with this area of his research. "The other stuff that we do ... nobody outside the scientific world cares about it," he says. "They're just interested in sex - and weight loss."

Odors - humans can detect 10,000 of them - evoke emotions, feelings and memories, the kinds of emotions, feelings and memories that marketers crave. That's why consumer product companies pay Hirsch big bucks to sniff out what people's noses are telling them.

Dreyer's and Edy's Grand Ice Cream, for example, commissioned Hirsch to study whether favorite flavors corresponded to personality types. Hirsch has just released the results, and sure enough, he found that Double Chocolate Chunk lovers tend to be lively, creative and dramatic, while those who choose Strawberries & Cream are shy, yet emotionally robust. Perhaps most startlingly, vanilla lovers are impulsive risk-takers.

Not that Hirsch's work is all candy and ice cream. He has also examined the use of odors in weight-loss (think green apples and Fritos corn chips), and studied how smells can enhance learning (avoid lavender at math time). He's found that particular odors can help relieve headaches and claustrophobia (green apples again), while others (livestock waste, air pollution) can have disastrous results, from increasing the number of traffic accidents to causing behavioral problems in school.

His studies of odors and sex-ual arousal arose from a theory that aromatherapy could help solve sexual dysfunction (or be used to kill the sex drive of sex offenders). A quarter of his patients who experience a loss of smell, usually after suffering head traumas, also experience sexual dysfunction.

To test his ideas, Hirsch had subjects wear surgical masks doused with scents and tested the flow of blood to volunteers' genitals (the common medical way of measuring sexual arousal).

The scents, which come in liquid form in tiny lab bottles, were picked at random, Hirsch says, meaning that odors even more exotic than licorice candy and cucumber might also be sexual stimulants.

"We don't know if other odors work better," Hirsch admits. "They could be regional. It could be the women in Baltimore respond differently. Crab cakes' smell might have a positive effect."

What will Hirsch nose into next? Odors that enhance learning and memory. Early research suggests a mixed floral scent.

And the applications of such olfactory findings?

Hirsch envisions a world where odors are emitted from your alarm clock to refresh you (in fact, the Japanese are already producing these), from your car vents to keep you alert, from classroom or office ducts to increase your productivity, and from, well, yourself in the bedroom to enhance romance.

"Maybe 10 years from now, you'll get a prescription for green apple smell, or lavender and pumpkin," Hirsch says. "That would be better living through odors."

Pub Date: 4/19/98

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