, Volume 32, Issue 8, pp 1635-1645
Date: 02 Aug 2006

Olfaction and Identification of Unrelated Individuals: Examination of the Mysteries of Human Odor Recognition

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Although several studies have examined the effect of human odor on kin recognition and mate choice, few have focused on the impact of familiarity on recognition of nonrelatives by olfactory cues. As part of a program designed to engage students in scientific research, 53 high school students researched, planned, and implemented a project to analyze the effect of odor on human recognition of, and preference for, friends, sex, and self. A total of 37 students, including friends of their choosing, wore T-shirts for three consecutive nights. During that time, subjects were controlled for exposure to extraneous perfumes, household odors, and other humans. The students were then asked to smell a series of five shirts and evaluate them with respect to pleasantness. Students were also asked to identify the shirts belonging to themselves and their friend, and determine the sex of the person who wore each shirt. Although subjects were unable to distinguish sex by olfactory cues alone, a significant percentage of subjects were able to identify their own odor (51.6%), as well as distinguish the odor cue of their friend (38.7%). Additionally, subjects who could not identify their friend's cue were apt to choose the odor of a member of the opposite sex as their friend. This result was not believed to rely on odor preference as neither individual, friend, nor stranger odors were rated significantly different with respect to odor pleasantness. The ability to recognize friends via odor cues lends credence to the hypothesis that association and familiarity are important aspects of conspecific olfactory recognition in humans. Furthermore, this study augments evidence that olfaction may supplement visual and auditory cues used in human conspecific and kin recognition.

This research was designed and implemented by 53 high school General Biology and Advanced Placement students who contributed as fellow authors to this project. Refer to Acknowledgments for a full list of names.