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Things you never knew about smell

We nose our way into the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in the Gold Coast.

Illustration: Maria Rendon

Earlier this year, Dr. Alan Hirsch invited a group of chronic headache sufferers into his Gold Coast office and handed each a pen with a perfumed tip. The next time a migraine strikes, he told them, uncap the pen and inhale. The odor, a sweet green apple, had no effect on those who were turned off by it initially. But of the 15 who liked the smell, all reported it significantly relieved their pain not once, but during three consecutive throbbing headaches.

The idea that one aroma mitigated at least 45 migraines could usher in new treatment options for patients (not to mention new marketing schemes for parfumiers). But to Hirsch, a neurologist who has been studying the olfactory system for more than 20 years, it was a natural conclusion. Certain scents trigger migraines, so why wouldn’t there be a scent capable of relieving the headache? And why not green apple, an odor already proven to reduce anxiety in claustrophobic patients?

As founder of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, located on the ninth floor of Water Tower’s executive suites, Hirsch—a slight, enthusiastic 55-year-old in chocolate brown scrubs and black sneakers—tests hypotheses such as the migraine theory all the time. And with more than 60 studies running right now, the 25-year-old lab is doing more, and more revolutionary, work than ever before. Hirsch is not always right; in one test, he was sure Chicago’s four-star chefs would be able to detect smells more acutely than the average person (they couldn’t). But often, he’s dead on.

Patients come from all over the world to visit Hirsch’s office, which is neatly decorated with abstract sculptures from his travels. “Helsinki, Paris…I’ll fly in for 24 hours to speak at a conference and buy something at the airport,” he says. His desk is carved from gleaming granite; visitors sit in a chair of crushed velvet. Recently, a woman referred by the Mayo Clinic came seeking help for a severe case of burning mouth syndrome—imagine the tingling sensation you get after biting into a too-hot pizza, except more intense and always there.

“She had bitten nearly her entire tongue off, trying to relieve the pain,” he says, downing a Red Bull (it’s 9:12am) and pausing only briefly before moving on to his next topic. He rattles off study setups (“989 subjects, 45 states, 39 countries”) and results from memory.

I learn that the scent of Colombian coffee can make time seem to move slower. A cucumber odor can make a room seem bigger. A floral scent can make a woman appear, on average, 12 pounds thinner, a number the institute derived from “impregnating” (a favorite Hirsch-ism) a model’s scarf with different smells and asking men around the city, including at McCormick Place’s annual Chicago Auto Show, to estimate her weight. “We had to stop going to bars because men were hitting on the models,” he says, laughing.

He dashes to his floor-to-ceiling bookcase—complete with library ladder—and returns with a hardcover titled Scentsational Sex: The Secret to Using Aroma for Arousal. “By Alan R. Hirsch,” the jacket reads. The foundation has done multiple studies on libido. Among the findings: Lavender and pumpkin pie get blood flowing to the penis more than any other scent combo; the duo of black licorice and cucumber turns women on.

Why? As with any of these tests, Hirsch can hypothesize—“nostalgia, a Pavlovian response, evolutionary instinct”—but there are no definite answers. The doctor’s work is a marriage of inferences from past findings, trial and error and, sometimes, “just deciding to test something because we have it lying around.”

So, should I wear lavender perfume and hide a pumpkin pie in my bedroom? Hirsch laughs. While fun to talk about, ultimately these findings can help patients seeking sexual therapy, he says.

Hirsch is submitting his migraine research to medical journals. His team is working on therapies for the burning mouth patient. It’s also creating a treatment program for a woman who has hyperosmia, or a sense of smell more than 1,000 times greater than an average person. Studies under way look to tackle childhood obesity, sleep disorders and depression.

Hirsch talks at length about an active study investigating whether the smell of jasmine can improve a person’s reaction time. So far, it looks as if it can. My first thought is marketing that finding to a sports team, but Hirsch has a different take: “The findings could help patients in physical therapy.”

But, he concedes, the jasmine aroma did improve test subjects’ bowling scores.

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