Market Smells I: Results

Last summer-fall, my colleague Colette Berbesque (@berbesque) and student Jessie Roberts, and I conducted a pilot field study aimed at getting some initial data on how the human sense of smell is disrupted in the natural (e.g., built) environment. This is the first step in a larger plan to explore the ecology of human olfaction.

Jessie recruited 39 individuals at two markets in the London area (Borough Market and St. Alban’s Market) to complete the four-odor Sniffin’ Sticks test (lemon, rose, mint, clove). The study produced are two key results. First, strong local signals (e.g,. a frying smell at Borough Market, see left) disrupted what was literally under participant’s noses (in this case, rose).



Second, the ability to detect and identify odors in the wild is drastically reduced compared to detection and identification in pristine settings. To the right is a comparison between a published study on UK odor identification in the lab and our test results. We used a shorter version that included some of the lab odors so this (like the study) is a rough estimate to validate further work. For more info, see the preprint (in review with Chemical Senses) here . But, we can say that most of what we know about human olfaction is from pristine lab environments which are not really telling us how our sense operates in daily life.

This summer, we aim to complete a few more pilot sessions focused on the Southwark area. The general plan will be to recruit 20 subjects on 2-3 occasions for a 2-hour session. We will be using a different set of odors and conducting repeat testing on the same individuals at three locations (the sensory rich Borough Market environment, the polluted street environment, and the clean art museum environment). We also aim to take local air samplings to determine the pollution level at each location as well as the odor compounds in the at the time of testing. We are still firming up details and hoping to get a bit of funding to provide a breakfast for participants. Stay tuned!


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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