What If We Could Communicate Through Scent?

“The chemical messages came to her faintly, much-diluted and far away, like whispers on the breeze. She submerged her whole foot in the water and began to walk, dampening the nerve signals that screamed cold! as the waves lapped at her thighs.”

One of the key plot points of my work in progress is that its viewpoint character isn’t human. She’s an alien – a member of a species that communicates through scent more than sound.

Devi has had to learn to talk to communicate with humans, so now she speaks both languages. But human readers may wonder – how much meaning could really be conveyed through scent? After all, it’s difficult to imagine reading a novel in scent form.

But even in humans, scent is a far more complex sensation than we often believe. The scent of coffee, for example, actually consists of over 150 different smells, whose meanings we only recognize as “coffee” when they are combined. One could conceive of “coffee,” then, as a word, phrase, or paragraph containing 150 different letters.

Scientists say that even we are capable of recognizing distinct meanings behind about 1 trillion distinct smells, made up of different combinations of the 400 or so “letters” of the scent alphabet – base scents which can combine with each other to create unique scent “words” or “images.”

So why isn’t smelling the air as you walk down the street like reading a newspaper? Humans have the capacity to recognize a huge range of smells – but what we do lack is the conditioning, discrimination, and processing mechanisms to link each of those 1 trillion smells to an abstract meaning.

We get more meaning from scent than we often realize. As you may have heard, scent is strongly tied to memory, and smelling a whiff on the breeze can conjure a very specific person, place, or feeling in our minds. In fact, scents may be more effective than words for this purpose, precisely because of the huge range of smells we can recognize and the extreme specificity of an individual combination.

Scientists have also shown that more of our behavior is driven by scent than we might think: scent plays a role in determining who we’re attracted to, including in attracting us to partners who have complementary immune systems to our own (making for optimally healthy kids).

Some people from Pacific Island cultures claim to be able to consciously tell if they are genetically related to someone based on their scent, or to be able to tell where fish are on a given day based on smell. Some scientists have speculated that keen sense of smell might have helped the ancestors of Pacific Islanders navigate complex ocean currents with no visible landmarks and safely cross thousands of miles of ocean.

There are some definite down sides to scent-based communication, which have probably helped prevent humans from developing scent into a language.

Scents are also more vulnerable to environmental factors, like wind and water currents, to determine how they’re dispersed. They reach across distances less reliably than light or sound, making scent a poor choice for one’s first line of communication in survival situations.

That might be one reason why we never evolved the ability to voluntarily control the smells we produce. Our bodies have a fairly limited repertoire, and they are controlled by very different parts of the brain from those that handle language and planning.

That means we can’t use our own smells to communicate conscious thoughts, decisions, questions, or descriptions, let alone numbers or plans. And even rudimentary “smell-o-vision” has proven expensive and complicated to engineer!

But conditions might be different elsewhere – especially for people like Devi’s, whose bodies and societies are different from our own in more than one way.

And it’s intriguing to think about whole languages which might be spoken right under our noses – literally – without us even realizing they hold meaning.

How would you communicate, if you had to keep your communications hidden?

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