What People Say the White Noise of Odor Smells Like

Jen Doll
What People Say the White Noise of Odor Smells Like

There's a new smell out there, folks. Well, the smell has existed before now, as smells do, but finally it has a way to make itself known in words. This smell has been dubbed "olfactory white" by scientists, writes Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience, "because it is the nasal equivalent of white noise." 

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Unfortunately, that only creates more questions among the laysmellperson, however. "Olfactory White," isn't that what they're always spraying on you when you walk through the makeup section at Bloomingdales? "White Noise," isn't that a Don DeLillo novel? Or is it what you put on in the office—the sound of waves, trance music, or whatever you prefer—to prevent those meddlesome coworkers from blasting Train or Nickelback? No, in fact, it is none of those things. Pappas explains, "Just as white noise is a mixture of many different sound frequencies and white light is a mixture of many different wavelengths, olfactory white is a mixture of many different smelly compounds." Olfactory white is not about what's in the specifics, but about how many specifics there are, in a way—there's a lot of different stuff in whatever leads you to olfactory white. And scientists found that the more components two mixtures had, the more similar the two mixtures smelled, even if those mixtures didn't share any of the same components. Weird. That's olfactory white, and it exists because in some ways (this is also in laysmellperson's terms; read more about the science of it here) our noses get confused when confronted with a lot of diverse components in a smell, as our ears do with noise and our eyes do with light.

Mixing multiple wavelegths that span the human visual range equally makes white light; mixing multiple frequencies that span the range of human hearing equally makes the whooshing hum of white noise. Neurobiologist Noam Sobel from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and his colleagues wanted to find out whether a similar phenomenon happens with smelling. 

And it did: In the experiments the group did, the more components in a mixture, the harder it was to "smell" them apart. For the purposes of Sobel's experiments, mixtures of 40 or more components were called not Olfactory White but "Laurax," a name that no young smell wants to have live up to: "The more compounds in a mixture, the more likely participants were to call it Laurax."

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Laurax, or olfactory white, it turns out, smells like very little, or is "so bland as to defy description. Participants rated it right in the middle of the scale for both pleasantness and edibility." Yet the words people used to describe the smells they smelled throughout this experiment ranged from pleasant to downright horrible. And they're fascinating. What does "warm" smell like? The smell words below were all used by study participants to describe what they thought they might be smelling.  Some smell words are good, some are bad, and some are weird—but they are all evocative.

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Good smell words Fruity, citrus  Soapy  Lemon  Leather Grapefruit Orange Peach Floral Rose Violets Bark Cinnamon Tea leaves Cognac Minty, peppermint Chocolate Vanilla Buttery Crushed grass Raw cucumber Hay

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Interesting (neutral or situational) smell words Cardboard Rope Wet paper  Raw potato Mushroom Peanut butter (ed: good if you like it; bad if you don't) Beany Eggy (fresh eggs) Cork Fresh tobacco smoke (ed: see peanut butter) Black pepper Varnish Fried chicken Popcorn Soupy Cheesy Cool, cooling Beery Warm

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Less than wonderful smell words Wet wool, wet dog Dirty linen Stale Musty, earthy, moldy   Mouse-like Stale tobacco smoke Burnt milk Burnt rubber  Nail polish remover Tar Disinfectant, carbolic Sharp, pungent, acid Sour, vinegar Sauerkraut Cat urine Fishy Seminal, sperm-like Mothballs   Rancid Alcoholic Sweaty Sewer odor   Putrid, foul, decayed Fecal (like manure) Cadaverous (dead animal) Sickening Sour milk Fermented (rotten) fruit 

Image via Shutterstock by Picsfive.