How Important Our Sense of Smell Really Is

We’d forgotten the impact that the sense of smell has on our psychology. The coronavirus pandemic serves as a pungent reminder of it

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Smelly cheese.
Smelly cheese.Credit: Ev Thomas/Shutterstock.com
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

The sense of smell is back in fashion. Last week the scientific journal Nature devoted an entire issue to discoveries about the olfactory sense, which is generally considered quite negligible when compared to the other four senses. The immediate reason was the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused millions of people to lose their sense of smell, and thus reawakened interest in the subject. Leading periodicals around the world have been running articles about “what your smell says about you” and pointing to the crucial effect that smell has on our behavior and our social relationships. Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot recently published a study showing that humans tend to forge friendships with people who smell like them.

Some find this information trivial, and instinctively grasp the impact that smell has on their life. Still, it’s surprising to discover how fragmentary the research is about the influence of smell on our mental state. In light of the vast research devoted to human psychology, this lacuna calls for an explanation. And that explanation may lie in the roots of modern psychology.

There once were two friends, young Jewish physicians living in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. One was an ear-nose-throat specialist named Wilhelm Fliess; the other a neurologist by the name of Sigmund Freud. Within a short time the friendship between them became highly fraught, both professionally and personally. In the 1890s, they co-developed breakthrough theories about the human psyche, but a different fate awaited each of them.

Freud became one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, and his theories about the structure of the psyche became the foundation of the modern psychological discourse. Fliess, by contrast, was shunted to the sidelines. His theories were almost forgotten and are today considered pseudo-science. But what’s interesting is that at the start of the road, Fliess’ thinking was more creative than Freud’s and also had a more decisive impact on his friend than Freud’s work had on him. Little wonder that in the wake of his success, Freud made every effort to hide the intense relationship they shared and destroyed all the letters he had received from Fliess.

Which of Fliess’ theories so greatly excited the young Freud? As an otolaryngologist, Fliess ascribed a crucial role to the nose. He noted the highly significant parallels between the nose and the sexual organs. Both are formed at the same stage of embryonic development, and accordingly the nose contains erectile tissue like the penis and the clitoris. But Fliess went a step further, arguing that the olfactory organ experiences a monthly period that parallels menstruation in women, which is manifested in a runny nose, inflammation and other phenomena, and which, he maintained, also affect one’s psyche. Moreover, he asserted that in addition to the feminine sexual cycle, which lasts 28 days, there is also a masculine cycle of 23 days. They are unconscious cycles, determined by glandular secretions.

For a certain period, the young Freud dealt intensively with calculations about cycles of 23 and 28 days among his patients, and hoped that Fliess would help come up with a solution to his own neurosis; indeed, Fliess operated on his nose and sinuses. But within a few years they fell out. Freud distanced himself from Fliess, and Fliess accused Freud of stealing ideas from him (not a completely unfounded notion).

In short order, Freud rid psychoanalysis of most of the elements related to the nose and cyclicity. The sense of smell itself was also marginalized. In a rare note in his essay “Civilization and its Discontents,” Freud argued that olfactory stimuli and the impact of the monthly cycle played a central role in our ancient forebears, as they do in animals. In his view, however, they were displaced by the sense of sight from the moment early humans stood erect. Humans then ceased to sniff their own excretions like dogs, and this constituted an essential condition for the development of civilization.

Psychoanalysis thus turned its back on the sense of smell. As a theory that seeks to impose reason and structure on the unconscious layers of the psyche, it had no place for a primeval, bestial and non-rational sense like smell.

Barack Obama blows his nose in 2008.Credit: Tony Gutierrez / AP

But it’s possible that the break in personal relations between Freud and Fliess had an equally substantial effect on the development of the discipline of psychoanalysis. There are some who would say that Freud could sense that his friend’s theory was developing in bizarre directions. Indeed, in later versions of his writings, Fliess drew a connection between an odd combination of phenomena – for example, anxiety, left-handedness, bisexuality and cosmic cycles. He also supported irresponsible medical procedures, notably nose operations on his female patients, which in some cases caused them ruinous damage.

Fliess may have been a dubious pseudo-scientist. But on second thought, Freud’s theories are also considered by many to be speculative and unscientific, and he also adopted procedures that we find unacceptable (such as using cocaine or analyzing his daughter). One can easily imagine a scenario in which Fliess’ account would have gained the ascendancy. Freud would be marginalized, and people in our day would try to identify their nasal cycles and read in astonishment about theories such as penis envy, the Oedipus complex or a death wish.

Vaginal sea

Scientifically, the effect of the sense of smell is elusive and difficult to research. But that’s not necessarily the only explanation for neglecting it. To use psychological terms, it is possible that we are repressing the crucial effect of smell on our interpersonal relationships. It’s more comfortable for us to think that we are attracted to persons who remind us of our mother, say, than to believe that the critical factor in our romantic ties is our beloved’s body odor. There have been psychoanalysts who attributed importance to smell, but their theories remained marginal.

A prominent case is that of the psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi, who maintained that the vagina has a sea smell, which attracts the male because it’s connected with the happy evolutionary period before the emergence from the water – when our ancient forebears frolicked with delight in the ocean.

At the same time, modern life has purified our surroundings from the smells of the body. We use cosmetics and deodorants to erase every trace of our natural odors. Ironically, men and women use perfumes that contain musk – an expensive substance secreted from glands in the anus or the sex organs of deer, beavers and civets. We purge ourselves of our natural odors, but daub ourselves with bodily secretions of creatures that we exploit.

But there’s good news: Together with the scientific renaissance the sense of smell is now enjoying, something is also changing in our attitude toward perfumes and cosmetics. In many places in the world, young people have become fed up with the pungency of cologne and aftershave. There are restaurants and other leisure venures that term themselves “fragrance-free” and eject clients who use strong perfumes.

We are still far from a situation in which people sniff one another freely in social gatherings. But habits change fast.

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