JUS Interview No. 8 – Andreas Keller, PhD Studying the Variability in Smell Perception

JUS perfume interview



Your name – Andreas Keller

Your work – Studying the variability in smell perception

  1. What first attracted you to the world of perfume / scent / fragrance?

Scientists — for some reason — don’t like to study the sense of smell. As a consequence we know very little about how our sense of smell works. Such an open field for new ideas and unexpected discoveries is attractive for me as a scientist. Also, smells are kind of fun.

  1. What perfume would you rescue from your collection if an evil perfume tax collector came round and said he was going to take every scent but one?

Two years ago I bought “The Scientific Explorer’s Science Kit: The Art and Science of Mixing Perfumes” for my niece as a Christmas present. Then I remembered that they don’t want you to send liquids via international mail, so I got her something else and kept the kit for myself. Shortly after Christmas I mixed myself three perfumes and those three perfumes currently constitute my entire perfume collection. I like the one in the red bottle the best, so I’d keep that one.

  1. If you won the lottery, what would be the first perfume in your shopping bag?


  1. If you could only wear one scent for the rest of your life, what would it be?


  1. What is a smell, or combination of smells, you wish was a perfume that you’ve never come across in any bottle before?


  1. Can you describe a moment of passion or poignancy in your life linked to a scent?


  1. What is your earliest memory of perfume?

As I young boy, when I wanted to get my mother a gift, I got her perfume. I put a lot of effort into picking the better of the two cheapest bottles. That’s my earliest memory of perfume. I’m reminded of it whenever I watch the Simpsons episode in which Bart gets his Mom as a birthday present a bottle of “real French perfume” for four bucks plus taxes.

  1. Is there a perfume you wore in the past that you no longer wear, and why?

I wore Fahrenheit by Dior when it came out in the late 80s. I was a nerdy teenage boy. Wearing any scent made me feel like a grown-up and Fahrenheit kind of seemed like a dangerous smell for real men. I remember that I thought it smelled “woody”. I don’t think I tried out many alternatives. There probably was a marketing campaign that appealed to me… but I can’t really remember.

After a couple of years I stopped wearing it because it was just too closely associated with being a teenager.

  1. Is there a particular figure or house in the world of perfume that you admire, and why?

What about a smell scientist I admire? Hendrik Zwaardemaker, a Dutch scientist who, in the late 19th century, was the first to systematically investigate our sense of smell. He invented the olfactometer, a device to measure people’s sensitivity to odors and discovered Zwaardemaker pairs, pairs of odors that neutralize each other. He also heroically filled his nose with water to see if we can smell under water (we can) and self-administered cocaine to see how it influences odor perception (it makes it more intense).

  1.  Is there any art (literature, poetry, theatre, visual art, music, etc) that you have experienced that uses scent in a provocative or beautiful way?  If not, can you think of an idea for scent in art?

When the German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann won the Hugo Boss Prize in 2010, he got $100,000 and the opportunity to exhibit his art for a few months in a gallery in the Guggenheim museum in New York. He used the prize money to get 100,000 used $1 bills and pinned the money to the gallery’s wall.

The stench of those 100,000 bills was overpoweringly physical.

Please have a look at Andreas’ fascinating website: http://andreaskeller.squarespace.com/

More about Andreas from his website:

I run the Smell Study at the Rockefeller University, where I am associated with the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior. My work focuses on the influences of genetic variability on odor perception.

I am also affiliated with the Institute for Social and Psychiatric Research at NYU, where I study clinical aspects of olfaction. If you have problems with your sense of smell, please click here.

Because perception has always been a central topic of the philosophy of mind, I investigate the philosophical implications of my work at the Department of Philosophy at the City University of New York.


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