Odor 'Map' May Lead To Digitized Smells

An odor 'map' developed at Israel's Weizmann Institute has shown that smells obey a set of laws common to everyone.

To create their map, the scientists began with 250 odorants and generated for each a list of 1,600 chemical characteristics. From this dataset, the researchers, led by Rafi Haddad, a graduate student with Prof.Noam Sobel in the neurobiology department, and Prof.David Harel of the computer science and applied mathematics department, together with colleague Rehan Khan, created a multi-dimensional map that revealed the distance between one odor molecule and another.

Eventually, they reduced the list of traits needed to situate an odor on the map to around 40. They then checked to see whether the brain recognizes this map in the same way it recognizes musical scales. They reexamined previously published studies that measured the neural responses to smells in a variety of lab animals, and found that across all species, the closer any two smells were on the map, the more similar the neural patterns.

If there are universal laws governing smell (as opposed to it being a purely subjective experience), it should be possible to send digital representations of scents.

SF readers may recall the scent-organ from Brave New World:

The scent-organ was playing a delightfully refreshing Herbal Capriccio - rippling arpeggios of thyme and lavender, of rosemary, basil, myrtle, tarragon; a series of daring modulations through the spice keys into ambergris...
(Read more about Huxley's scent-organ)

If you think that the digital transmission of scent is improbable, take a look at this article about scented text messages. DoCoMo is already working on fragrance-equipped cell phones.

Via Jerusalem Post; thanks to Moira for contributing the tip.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 7/30/2008)

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