'White Noise' For Your Nose Cancels Out Nasty Odors

'White Noise' For Your Nose Cancels Out Nasty Odors

Scientists have high hopes for "white noise" for the nose.

It turns out that two researchers have found the mathematical formula to create an olfactory equivalent of "white noise," which they say could be used to cancel out any pungent odors you may want to get rid of.

"This is different than traditional approaches to odor cancellation," Dr. Lav R. Varshney, one of the researchers, who is an assistant professor in engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told The Huffington Post in an email. "Instead we take advantage of the perceptual properties of human olfaction to ensure what is perceived is this white smell."

How does this work exactly?

Lav and his brother Dr. Kush Varshney, a researcher at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York, found that the chemical compounds in any smell you're able to detect have an opposing set of odor compounds -- such that when the two sets are mixed together, they cancel each other out.

The Varshneys put together a database of scents, matching odor compounds with ratings of various smell properties. Then they built a model that uses the database to take a scent you want to eliminate, and find its compounds with opposite smell ratings.

Using this model, the Varshneys showed that a blend of 38 compounds could almost completely cancel out the particularly pungent odors of onion, sauerkraut, Japanese fermented tuna and durian fruit, New Scientist reported.

"There is a percept called 'olfactory white,'" Lav said in the email, "which occurs when the odor compounds being perceived are well-distributed across the stimulus space, similar to how mixing light of many colors is perceived as white. If we can sense which malodor compounds are present, we can use mathematical techniques to figure out which other compounds to add, so that the total percept is this 'olfactory white.'"

Indeed, researchers discovered the smell dubbed "olfactory white" in 2012. And, as Lav explained, just as white noise is a mixture of many different sound frequencies and white light is a mixture of different wavelengths, olfactory white is a mixture of different smelly compounds.

Now, the Varshney brothers envision many ways in which their newfound method to hack "olfactory white" may be used in the future.

"One application of the work is improving the indoor air quality in buildings, cars, planes, etc. by canceling malodors that are present," Lav said in the email. "Another application is to transform nutritious food that picky eaters find aversive into something they find flavorful, by adding other potentially nutritious additives (since smell is the central contributor to human flavor perception). One can even consider creating 'smelltracks' for virtual reality, similar to soundtracks for movies."

The list goes on.

This new research was published online in the arXiv preprint repository.

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