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The 12 Most Recognizable Scents (of 1982)

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In the early 1980s, psychologist William Cain asked a bunch of people to sniff lighter fluid—for science. Working with students at Yale University, Cain and his cohorts took 80 common scents and asked participants if they could identify them.   

The resulting paper, “Odor Identification by Males and Females,” was published in the Chemical Senses journal in 1982. Thirty-three years later, it’s both a snapshot of what our noses were once commonly exposed to and an example of how certain smells never go out of style. Go on and take a whiff.      

1. Coffee

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Few of Cain’s subjects had any problem naming the sweet aroma of ground coffee, and it’s unlikely things would be any different in today’s Starbucks-dotted world. “Even people who don’t drink coffee often love the smell of it,” says Cain, who now a senior scientist at the Chemosensory Perception Lab in San Diego. “There’s a pleasantness to it that puts it categorically aside. There are other things on the list at least as familiar in terms of frequency, but this is somehow different. I think even kids like the smell.”

2. Peanut Butter

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Yes, Cain had students sticking their noses in jars in a pre-peanut hysteria climate. No one died. But it is surprising a comparatively low-key smell was so easily pinpointed in the study, especially when different brands of peanut butter can have their own distinctive scent. One explanation might be that peanuts produce over 200 airborne molecules, a kind of olfactory symphony that’s easy to recognize.

3. Vicks VapoRub

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A mentholated cream, Vicks is actually designed to be pungent—a good way to stay memorable. It’s also able to assert itself into your sense memory with a brand name that can help word retrieval. “It has stability based on the name of the product,” Cain says. In his study, subjects who could use a specific name to recall products could repeat it 80 to 90 percent of the time. If they gave a more generalized term, their chances plummeted to 50 percent.

4. Chocolate

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For this one, subjects were given a little leeway. “I can give you Hershey’s chocolate, and with good justification can say 'this is what chocolate is,'” Cain says. “But I can also give you other kinds of chocolates. It’s the kind of category in which you’re permitted a certain amount of variation, using the same name for variants of a product.”

5. Wintergreen Oil

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A common scent (and flavor) in oral hygiene products, wintergreen is practically rammed down throats in the form of toothpaste, mouthwash, and candies like Life Savers—as well as cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Next to coffee, it might be the most common high-exposure item on the list.

6. Johnson’s Baby Powder

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One outcome of the study that surprised Cain was the dominance of fabricated, manmade smells as opposed to organic scents. “Items that are not natural are incredibly stable in terms of perception,” he says. “One of them is baby powder that comes from Johnson’s. Even off brands are made to smell like it.”

7. Cigarette Butts

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While people were certainly aware of the health risks of cigarettes in the early 1980s, it was still a relatively common habit indoors and out. “[The study today] would certainly change,” he says. “Smoking was ubiquitous then.”

8. Mothballs

As an insect deterrent, mothballs have fallen out of favor in recent years due to health risks associated with inhalation. Children are especially susceptible to DNA and red blood cell breakdowns when exposed to naphthalene, one of the active chemicals. (Don’t inhale mothballs, kids. And don’t eat ‘em, either.)

9. Dry Cat Food

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That oddly processed, industrial odor of cat food is a good example, Cain says, of what he calls “decontextualizing” smells. “When you give someone a jar, they probably don’t expect it to be full of cat food,” he says. “It’s unpleasant.” Cain likens it to smelling ketchup on a hamburger, which is less odorous and potentially more enticing than smelling the condiment by itself.

10. Beer

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Most all beer has a distinctive yeast smell, which researchers speculate may be due to its need to attract fruit flies so the fungi can hitchhike to other rotting pastures. In the case of Cain’s study, the reason for recognition may be far simpler: his subjects were college students.

11. Ivory Bar Soap

Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Like baby powder, Ivory’s distinctive smell provided subjects with stability. “These products are made with such high precision that they’re virtually identical every time,” Cain says. “The errors in odor identification come from fluctuations in stimulus.” One apple is not like another, or may be less ripe—but millions of bars of soap are engineered to mimic one another.

12. Juicy Fruit Gum

Will Culpepper, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Strangely, the women in Cain’s study were far more accurate in detecting Juicy Fruit than the men, though they weren’t any more likely to chew gum. But a large portion of Cain’s study was devoted to the fact that women are generally far superior to men in identifying smells, including supposed male-leaning scents like motor oil. They outperformed the men in 66 of 80 samples, though it may have more to do with being better at verbal recall than actual scent memory.

The one time men showed clear nasal dominance? Identifying Brut Aftershave. “Men were better at that,” Cain says. “Maybe it had something to do with [then-spokesman] Joe Namath.”

What scents do you think would dominate a list today? Let us know in the comments below.

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Design
This Concrete Block Makes a Fine Espresso
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Have you ever thought your kitchen could use more of a Soviet Union vibe? Do you find the fixtures in abandoned buildings charming? Then the AnZa espresso machine—essentially a coffee maker encased in a concrete block—may be for you.

According to Curbed, the AnZa is part of the art and installation aesthetic dubbed Brutalism, an architectural movement using spare, blocky designs. Moving away from the sleek, shiny appearance of most modern appliances, design firm Montaag crafted a rough block with simple knobs. As post-apocalyptic as it may look, it’s reputed to make a very good cup of espresso. And it’s “smart”: a smartphone app can adjust the brewing temperature to the user’s preference.

A close-up of the AnZa's knob
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The project’s Kickstarter recently met its $145,000 goal and is now accepting preorders at Indiegogo for $799. You can hoist this subjectively beautiful appliance on your countertop beginning in March 2018.

[h/t Curbed]

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Big Questions
What Is Pumpkin Spice?
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Pumpkin Spice season seems to come earlier every year, but today marks its official arrival, as October 1 is National Pumpkin Spice Day. Before you reach for a cup, drink this in: The flavor can be composed of more than 300 elements—and pumpkin isn’t one of them.

Most recipes include cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and vanilla, but not every incarnation of the concoction is the same, according to a video by food scientist and spokesperson for The Institute of Food Technologists, Kantha Shelke, Ph.D, C.F.S.

So what’s the connection to the season’s most beloved orange fruit? (Yes, pumpkin is a fruit!) Flavor companies also add in skillfully designed compounds that mimic the taste of pumpkin pie. Each chemical is carefully reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and approved at concentrations of about 20 to 50 times the normal consumption level. And even though the full flavor contains 340 compounds, combining only five to 10 percent of those molecules in a mix is enough to trick our brains into thinking, “Mmm, just like Thanksgiving!”

But beware: attempting to recreate the magic in the average kitchen isn't as easy as pie. With only the spices available at a supermarket, the final product will likely taste more like Chai than the seasonal treat on professional menus. “Pumpkin Spice isn’t set in stone,” Shelke says. “Everyone has their secret recipe.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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