A few weeks ago, Robin on Now Smell This posted a link to a series of videos for a symposium called Headspace that covered topics on “Scent As Design.” I played the videos in the background while I worked on something else, and I found part of one of the four to be interesting enough to go back and watch in more detail. The one that caught my attention was a presentation by Leslie Vosshall about the way people smell the same scent differently. I’ve talked about this phenomenon on the blog a number of times, so it was interesting to see that some researchers are currently looking into it. For those who are curious, the link is symposium part 3, and this topic starts at about the 25 minute mark.
Researchers at Rockefeller University studied how people perceived different odors and took blood samples from the subjects to study their DNA. The researchers found that each person had a different set of odor receptors that were functional and nonfunctional, and those differences seemed to make people perceive the odors differently. The title for that slide during the lecture was “Every Human May Have A Unique Nose.” The topic came up again at the 1 hour and 4 minute mark when they compared having nonfunctional odor receptors to being color blind but with much more subtle results since there are so many more odor receptors than color receptors, which means that losing a few makes less impact on your life for smells than for colors.
Leslie Vosshall also mentioned that they found a core set of odor receptors that almost everyone had, and vanilla was one of those with only 5 percent having nonfunctional vanilla reception. That does not surprise me since I’ve yet to find someone anosmic to vanilla, while I’ve found people anosmic to many other things. As a perfumer this makes me feel it is “safer” to use vanilla as a sweetener than to use musk, and I’m more aware of this issue now than I was several years ago. It may also help explain why vanillic bases are so popular — not only are they long-lasting, but they are also more likely to be smelled by nearly everyone.