Thursday, May 31, 2012

Humans can identify each other's age by smell

Our olfactory senses, the official word for smell, are quite peculiar. They are strongly connected with our feelings, as some things smell repulsive, while other things smell rather appealing. Smell is also strongly associated with memory, as a single scent can bring back elaborate memories of an event in the past. Scientists from the Monell Center have discovered an additional fun fact about smell: it helps us discern age. It appears that human body odours tell us something about how old someone is.

Arm pads
In an effort to obtain odours in their study, the scientists let participants spend five nights in an unscented t-shirt while wearing pads on their arms that absorbed body odour. All the participants in the study were divided in three groups based on age, being either young (20-30 years old), middle-age (45-55), or old-age (75-95). After obtaining the smell of each person in the study, the scientists put the pads in glass jars to be evaluated by others.

Distinguishing age
A group of young people between the ages of 21 and 30 years old were asked to determine what age group the odours they were asked to smell belonged to. From the results it appears that they were quite adept at matching smell with age. Additionally, odours from the elderly were perceived as less intense and less unpleasant, despite the common belief that old people smell bad. Of course, the scientists only placed pads on arms, which means that it may not be representative for whole body smell.
The ability to gather information about an individual based on smell is likely to have developed by evolutionary means. According to certain scientists, it helps us to pick a suitable mate. By showing that we have the ability to attach odours to age, the study certainly adds proof to that hypothesis. Nevertheless, more research is required to uncover a more detailed mechanism, especially because the young people taking part in the study found odours of older-aged 'donors' to be more neutral and less undesirable. 

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