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The Hidden Power of Scent

Far from being a weak and unimportant sense, our odor-detecting ability is surprisingly acute and shapes our social interactions in ways we do not consciously realize
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A tangle of tubes and polyurethane pouches binds a naked man and woman—he, paunchy and unperturbed, she, slim and similarly unself-conscious. This setup is not some esoteric sex game; it’s “Smell Blind Date,” an installation created by artist James Auger on display this past spring in New York City as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind. The PVC tubes—which run between the subjects’ chests, with outlets extending to pouches attached to their noses, armpits and genitals—allow the man and woman to inhale each other’s body odor through a wall that divides them. In theory, they are on a truly blind date, each undistracted by the other’s looks, assessing the other’s potential as a mating partner by his or her smell alone.

The human sense of smell is often seen as insignificant, dismissed as a distant also-ran to our keen eyesight or sensitive hearing. But this sense is keener and more influential on our species than many people realize. In particular, as Auger’s fanciful art project illustrates, smell facilitates a variety of human social interactions, both casual and intimate. Indeed, people who lose their sense of smell often gain a new appreciation for its importance [see “When the Nose Doesn’t Know,” by Eleonore von Bothmer; Scientific American Mind, October/November 2006].

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