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Written by Jennifer Dublino, on September 27th, 2011
Many research studies have pointed out the large range of scent preferences by culture. For example, Asian cultures find the smell of certain cheeses repulsive, while Europeans enjoy or at least put up with their distinct aromas. In Ethiopia, the cattle-raising Dassanetch people love the smell of cow urine and manure and use them on their bodies as personal fragrances. Some studies have shown that familiar smells are considered the most pleasant, so odor preferences would naturally vary by locale and the smells that can be found in different places (salt air, different kinds of native trees, flowers and fruit, various kinds of spices and cooking, etc.).
However, scientists have recently discovered that nasal molecules that detect odor are grouped together in the nose according to the degree of pleasantness. So receptors that sense a delicious smell of baking bread may be near in location to those that sniff out a rose’s fragrance, while sensor molecules that can smell garbage might be far away but close to those that can catch a whiff of dirty diapers. The study was conducted by Noam Sobel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel and was reported in Nature Neuroscience on September 25th.
While scientists pointed out that odor preferences are extremely malleable according to the individual’s learned association with different fragrances, this study indicates that human beings have innate odor preferences. This may confer an evolutionary advantage, by for example, helping newborn babies hone in on mother’s milk, or helping us avoid rancid food.