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According to scientists, we have always had an idea as to how smells affect our brain and mean different things for our health. From phantom smells to pheromones, our nose can indicate quite a bit regarding our overall health.

Smell and Death

However, up until recently, scientists had no idea just how detrimental our smell was to understand the signals of death. In fact, impending death actually has its own scent and our nose knows it. Have you ever had a friend or family member who was on the verge of death that could sense it? This may be why.

In a study conducted by Arnaud Wisman from the University of Kent’s School of Psychology, as our body begins to break down, a scent is released during the process, and while we may not consciously realize it, subconsciously, scientists believe that we do.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into the world of scents, the book “The Secret of Scent” by Luca Turin offers a captivating exploration into the science of smell.


In turn, we may go into fight or flight mode, because this is considered to be our threat management response. This research was dubbed ‘The Smell of Death,’ and carries out a variety of scientific inquiries regarding the chemical known as putrescine, which is produced by the decaying tissues.

People are not familiar with putrescine and do not consciously associate it with death or fear,” the two researchers explained.

As Wisman writes on his University of Kent website, “Scents can communicate many things such as danger, whether something is edible, whether a partner is suitable, and even how others feel. Interestingly, the latest research suggests that humans too can communicate various emotions such as fear and stress via scent.”

Olfactory System

The olfactory system, which involves our sense of smell, has been an intriguing subject of scientific research for ages. It has long been known that specific scents can invoke memories, feelings, and even physiological responses. But the depths to which our noses can pick up on intricate changes in our environment, especially those linked to health, are only beginning to be understood in their full complexity.

Historically, humans have used smell as a survival mechanism. A rotten smell could indicate spoiled food, while the scent of smoke might mean danger. With evolution, while some animals heightened their sense of smell, humans evolved to rely more on other senses. However, this doesn’t negate the fact that certain smells still play an essential role in our lives, especially when it pertains to health. This association between health and scent isn’t just about recognizing when food has gone bad or when something is burning; it’s far more nuanced and deep-rooted than that.

Phantom Smells

For instance, the concept of phantom smells, where individuals perceive scents that aren’t present, has been an area of intrigue. This could be indicative of specific health issues or a byproduct of other sensory distortions. Similarly, pheromones, chemicals that can influence our behavior and emotions, are subtly released and detected, playing a role in attraction and other interpersonal interactions.

Given these broader contexts, the discovery that we can potentially detect the scent of impending death adds a new layer to our understanding of the olfactory system. The very idea that death emits a scent is somewhat morbidly fascinating. It also raises the question: Have our ancestors always been subconsciously aware of this phenomenon, especially when near those close to death?

To further understand how scents can impact our emotions and memories, consider reading “The Fragrant Mind” by Valerie Ann Worwood.

Arnaud Wisman’s study at the University of Kent dives into this intricate relationship. The concept that our bodies, during their decline, might release a distinct odor is both astonishing and unsettling. It’s like nature’s way of signaling the end of a life cycle, similar to how flowers wilt or how leaves turn brown. This scent, linked to the chemical putrescine, which emanates from decaying tissues, might not be noticeable to our conscious minds. However, on a subconscious level, it seems to trigger a response — a primal, instinctual reaction of either fight or flight.

This kind of reaction isn’t surprising. Historically, death and decay have often been associated with potential threats, like diseases. Thus, when humans subconsciously detect this scent, it could very well be a deeply embedded evolutionary response to distance ourselves from potential harm.

Yet, what’s equally important to understand is that putrescine isn’t something people encounter daily. For most, it’s not a recognizable scent, let alone something we’d instantly associate with death or danger. But the fact that our brains can potentially pick up on it and respond without our conscious knowledge shows just how intricate and deeply tuned our sensory systems are.

Wisman’s statement that scents can convey various emotions, like fear and stress, adds another layer to this narrative. Imagine a world where, beyond words and expressions, our very beings communicate through scents. Emotions, like anxiety or joy, could be things we don’t just feel but release into our environments. While further research is needed, the preliminary findings from studies like Wisman’s shed light on the incredible, often understated power of our olfactory system.

In conclusion, as science continues to unravel the mysteries of our senses, it’s becoming abundantly clear that there’s much more to our interactions with the world around us than meets the eye — or in this case, the nose. The discovery that we might be able to subconsciously detect the scent of impending death is not only a testament to the intricate design of human physiology but also a reminder of the delicate balance and deep interconnections of life and death.