Olfactory Identification Differences by Age

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Updated on Aug 29, 2011

The purpose is to determine if the accumulation of life experiences by adults enables them to be better able to identify smells than young people.

Your nose receives a variety of smells each day, and many different smells throughout your lifetime. Your mind often associates a specific smell with a visual scene. The smell of seaweed may remind you of the sea, if you live by or have visited a seashore. The smell of pine may make you think of the Christmas holiday, when a live tree was decorated in your home. The aroma of baking cookies may remind you of being with your grandmother in her kitchen. The smell of a geranium may remind you of a plant in a neighbor's window sill.

These smells and their associations are imbedded in our minds as we go through life and enjoy many different experiences. Certain smells may not be identifiable to young people who have never experienced them. For example, the strong smell of mothballs is easily identifiable by many adults, but because much of our clothing today is made from synthetic materials, moth balls are not as popular as they once were. The smell of household lubricating oil may make an older adult male think of playing with an Erector construction toy set as a child. Burning leaves may remind an adult of diving into tall piles of raked leaves in the fall when they were little.

Smells play a very important part of our life experiences.

Hypothesize that when presented with a group of common smells, a larger percentage of adults will be able to correctly identify the smells than will those of a younger age.

  • Household oil
  • Mothballs
  • Leather product (such as a wallet)
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Geranium plant
  • Piece of cedar wood
  • Pine tree branch
  • Fresh-baked cookies
  • Vanilla extract
  • Ten adults to survey
  • Ten young teenagers to survey
  • Ten small jars with screw-on lids (such as baby food jars)
  • Black construction paper
  • Adhesive tape

Find ten small jars with lids. Cover the sides of the jars with black construction paper, using adhesive tape, to prevent anyone from seeing inside the jars.

Gather ten items that have distinctive smells. Suggested items are given above in the Materials' List (mothballs, cinnamon, and so forth). Place a sample of each item in its own jar and screw on the lid.

Expose ten adults and ten young teenage students to each of the smells. Have each subject close their eyes when they smell the samples. Set up a log and keep a record of the number of items (and which items) each surveyed subject correctly identifies. You may want to later tabulate your results using a computer spreadsheet program with graphing capabilities.

Did a larger percentage of adults than students correctly identify the sample items?

Write down the results of your experiment. Document all observations and data collected.

Come to a conclusion as to whether or not your hypothesis was correct.

Something More
  1. Analyze the number of correct identifications of each item by adults, and then by students. Did most adults correctly guess particular items, while few students could? This may be a reflection on our changing society. Mothballs, as mentioned earlier, may not be familiar to many students, because moth balls are not as common as they once were in most households.
  2. Compare your results by male and female subjects. Are certain items more easily identified by specific genders? For example, because more males probably play the sport of baseball than females, hypothesize that the smell of a new baseball glove may be more familiar to males than females.
  3. Smells may cause memory recollection better than images.
  4. The nose continues to grow throughout life and beyond!