On a Unique Smell

There is one specific smell that is peculiar among smells. You might say that there are thousands of smells, and you’d be correct to a point. Wet grass smells different from freshly cut wood which smells different from baked bread. But those differences are aromas, which sounds like pedantry if I say that there is a difference between an aroma (pleasant), an odor (not so pleasant), and a smell. Smells are neutral, while words like fragrance and scent (and aroma/odor) are specific descriptors of smells. Those who are in the know about these things (and I am not among them) say that aromas, odors, and etc., are comprised of smells.

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh insist that all aromas/odors/scents/fragrances are made up of only ten–yes, only ten–unique smells. These ten smells often combine to form the aromas of those things like grass, wood, and bread. Humans with normal olfactory systems can readily distinguish between these ten smells. And those ten smells that make up all the aromas in the world are fragrant, lemon, chemical, wood or resin, fruity (non-citrus), mint, sharp, sickening, sweet, and…one more. Any aroma that you can think of or remember is made up of these or a combination of these.

It’s that last one that interested the scientists at Pitt. They found that this particular smell was so vastly different from the others simply because it was so specific. It’s a smell most of us in the western world know quiet well. One interesting thing the researchers found was that this smell can be found in other things, but was still so unique to itself. They said it was somewhat earthy, but it can’t be classified as either woody or grassy. Most people find it actually comforting somewhat, even though the urine of the animal, the bearcat, smells disturbingly close to it.

One of my favorite rides at Epcot is Soarin’. You ride in a glider-type ride in front of a large IMAX-type screen over snow, over cities, famous landmarks, and even the African savannah. It’s the is last one I like the most, because, as you soar over a small group of elephants, one of the animals throws some of the savannah dust and grass up and into your path. At the same time, the Disney engineers spray a scent of woody/grassy aroma into the room, and the illusion becomes wonderfully complete. You can actually buy Savannah Soarin room air freshener (I have done so with no regrets).

Researchers also say that smell is the one sense most closely aligned with memory. Your father’s cologne. Roses in your grandmother’s garden. The wet fur on your favorite dog. I can attest to this power of smell with two short memories from my youth. First, one of my first memories is of the smell of scorched oatmeal. I’m from the American south, and oatmeal was a filling and cheap and traditional breakfast food (and, for me, a butter delivery system). So, if I smell that burned oatmeal aroma, my mind goes back immediately to when I was 3 and smelled that smell one morning.

The second memory aligns with the one that is the unique smell mentioned in the list of ten above. In middle school (grades 6-8), I played basketball for our school. On game nights, the concession stand was set up on the stage (the gym doubled as an auditorium), and the smells of the concession fare filled the room. It became difficult to breathe on some winter evenings as the smell filled the room–specifically, the hot/humid, buttery smell of the sugar in a kernel of corn being heated to the point of exploding.

We know this smell as popcorn.


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