We are unique. It is something that all of us are aware of and is an important part of defining our identity and how we go about the world. We can all point out differences in how we look, and how we interact, but there is a chemical composition that is also unique—how we smell. We call it our olfactory fingerprint: a combination of scents both identifies us individually and allows us to understand the world around us.
What is an olfactory fingerprint?
Every person, every space, culture, and biome has a distinct aroma profile and we humans can almost subconsciously capture and catalog another human’s unique olfactory fingerprint to be able to identify or understand what we are experiencing.
Research suggests that our own unique pattern of odors—aka our olfactory fingerprint—draws on 28 odors for nearly 400 different pairs, or unique patterns, according to the Weizman Institute of Science's Neurobiology Department.
Historically speaking, people recognize scents associated with their tribe, so you go looking for scents that are familiar with what you were raised around. These recognizable scents allowed us to understand where we were and know that we were surrounded by people we know and are safe. Sampling the olfactory fingerprints of our immediate group and location would let us know if there were any predators or dangers that we might not see. Scent became a safety tool. This tool extends to finding people who are compatible with us. We subconsciously interact and sample another's genetic fingerprint through our interactions and something like kissing can start with a whole new meaning. “A lot of scientists and anthropologists think that we kiss each other to actually smell each other. We each have a scent that is more unique than your iris or a fingerprint,” says Wisniewski.
Scent is also a social cue. Yes, you can link it to your compatibility with people, but it is also the same reason that we avoid fire or wild mushrooms. Those are things that your brain learns to associate with danger over time. For example, if you had a bad relationship with someone who smoked cigarettes, you might smell cigarette smoke and proceed cautiously. Or perhaps you got sick from drinking too much of some type of alcohol and that smell repulses you now, years later.
We have millions of smell receptors and how they’re diversified and where they’re housed is very much individualized. Put another way, your olfactory fingerprint is a way in which you can be characterized.
3 More Reasons An Olfactory Fingerprint Is Valuable
Every scent impacts us
“75 percent of our daily memories and emotions are likely triggered by smell,” says Aaron Wisniewski, co-founder and CEO of OVR Technology. From an evolutionary standpoint, our sense of smell is a way for us to understand or classify potential dangers, or understand what’s safe. Here’s a more modern example: in the U.S. freshly-baked cookies are associated with comfort. That, however, doesn’t always translate to other cultures and countries.
Newborn babies recognize smell immediately
Smell is the first sense that we develop. In the womb, at 28 to 30 weeks of development, we are able to detect odor molecules in the amniotic fluid around us from the food our mothers ate. “A baby’s ability to smell is fully formed so when they are born, the moment they take a breath, their sense of smell is with them from then 24/7,” says Wisniewski.
Your olfactory fingerprint influences your immunity
The makeup of your olfactory receptors has been linked to your genes, and the trickle-down effect suggests it also has the potential to influence components of your immune system. Specifically, how seems to still be TBD, but research shows there’s a connection.
Scent is often subconscious but can create meaningful interactions with the world around us. We are constantly scanning the olfactory landscape and identifying the fingerprints to look for new information, protect ourselves from danger, feel comfortable and safe, or find a new loved one.