Whether a particular smell is pleasant depends more on the chemical composition of the substance than on cultural factors. That’s the conclusion of a working group led by Artin Archamyan of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm based on a study of 225 people from nine non-Western societies on three continents. As the team reports in Current BiologyWhile there were significant individual differences, there was also great global agreement on pleasant and pleasant smells. In contrast, different cultural backgrounds rarely play a role. The test subjects found vanillin to be the most pleasant, followed by ethyl butyrate, which smells like peach, and linalool, which smells like flower and spice.
There was no difference between whether participants lived in a city or lived semi-nomadic in tropical forests, nor did the experts find any typical continent or lifestyle preferences. The scents people prefer is a matter of taste everywhere—according to the Arshamian team’s statistical analysis, personal preference determines about 50 percent of an individual scent’s rating.
But the analysis also shows that the chemical composition – and thus the biological heritage of the human nasal mucosa – determines about 40 percent of the classifications. The working group also confirmed this finding by demonstrating that test subjects from a Western culture, city dwellers in North America, also categorize odors in a similar way. On the other hand, the global ranking of odors can be predicted from pleasant to unpleasant with the help of a computer model that evaluates molecules based on chemical and physical properties.
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