Monday, November 11, 2019

Olfactory Attraction and Smell Dating

Smell Dating, an interactive exhibit by Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne

A conceptual art installation, an extended olfactory performance piece, an elaborate participatory project, or an actual smell-based dating service? Smell Dating is all of these and more!

How it works
  1. We send you a t-shirt
  2. You wear the shirt for three days and three nights without deodorant.
  3. You return the shirt to us in a prepaid envelope.
  4. We send you swatches of t-shirts worn by a selection of other individuals.
  5. You smell the samples and tell us who you like.
  6. If someone whose smell you like likes the smell of you too, we'll facilitate an exchange of contact information.
  7. The rest is up to you.

My initial view of the project was based a recent showing of the interactive exhibit, where the participants could sniff small swatches of cloth, rate the unknown wearer's attractiveness (UNATTRACTIVE — NEUTRAL — ATTRACTIVE), learn how others voted, and see basic background information about the wearer (e.g., 30 year old female bisexual pescatarian). The first two I sniffed were odorless, but then there was #8...

The art installation is part of Useless Press, “a publishing collective that creates eclectic Internet things.” I assumed it was an elaborate joke, not an actual matchmaking service, but the artists must have had a grant to implement the idea in real life.

In Shanghai, people signed up over a two week period and paid ¥100 to become a “member.”
Smell Dating @ Shanghai [culminated] in the Sweat Lab, a participatory installation event... Visitors are invited to volunteer in the Smell Dating Sweat Lab and intimately experience the smells of strangers. During this event we will prepare the smell samples from our members t-shirts. Shirts will be meticulously cut up and batched to be sent back to Smell Dating members.

Smell Dating premiered in New York in March 2016 and received extensive press coverage, most of which took it seriously. Young female writers at The Guardian, Business Insider, Time, Racked, and a gay man at HuffPo tried out the service. The Buzzfeed reporter realized, “Yes, this is mostly a stunt-y gag” but also touched on the science behind smell and attraction. The health reporter at Time wrote about the underlying science in detail (e.g., major histocompatibility complex) and interviewed smell scientists, including Dr. Noam Sobel (founder of, Dr. Richard Doty (author of The Great Pheromone Myth), and Dr. Gary Beauchamp (Emeritus Director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center).

The creators of Smell Dating (Tega Brain and Sam Levine) consulted with olfactory scientists and provided an extensive reading list on the web site.

Most everyone agrees that odors evoke emotion, and the sense of smell has a unique relationship to autobiographical memory. But, as Richard Doty asks, do human pheromones exist?
While it is apparent that, like music and lighting, odors and fragrances can alter mood states and physiological arousal, is there evidence that unique agents exist, namely pheromones, which specifically alter such states?

It turns out that scientific opinion on this matter is decidedly mixed, even polarizing, as I'll discuss in the next post.


Doty RL. (2014). Human Pheromones: Do They Exist? In: Mucignat-Caretta C, editor. Neurobiology of Chemical Communication. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; Chapter 19.

Smell Dating from Tega Brain.

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At November 16, 2019 3:07 AM, Anonymous David J. Littleboy said...

FWIW, there was a (perhaps flaky, but I enjoyed it) article in the New Yorker in the last 2 or 3 years about "supertasters", people who are more sensitive to taste than others. I bring this up because people's sense of smells are wildly different. I find the perfume and cosmetics sections of department stores* intensely painful to walk through: it feels like someone is scraping the inside of my nose with a scalpel. Someone must like that feeling, or maybe most people just have a lousy sense of smell.

Related to the supertasters bit, one of my favorite scientific results ever is the result that blindfolded, people who claim to be wine experts can't tell the difference between red and white. I can: I can't drink red. Again, it's close to painful, like my mouth is full of sand.

Anyway, I get the impression that folks who talk about pheromones don't have a clue as to how wildly different individuals' taste and smell senses are.

While I, for the nonce, come down on the "the whole idea of pheromones in humans is insanely silly" side of the pheromones discussion, it's more a philosophical thing: I think that humans think, are capable of rational decisions, actually do have free will, and thus "the pheromones made me do it" isn't a philosophically (or morally) acceptable thing. "I learned the hard way, to let this one pass by, this one pass by" sang the Grateful Dead, and I go, "Yep. We have intelligence and can learn and can do better than first looks/first smells."

Whatever, in case I haven't said this recently, thanks for keeping going with this blog.

*: Here in Tokyo, we still have department stores. I don't know/understand why, but it's the craziness that makes this place fun...


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