B orn Rachel Sarah Herz, April 20, 1963, in Ithaca, NY; daughter of Carl Samuel (a mathematics professor) and Judith Emily Scherer (an English professor) Herz; married. Education: Queen’s University, B.A., 1985; University of Toronto, M.A., 1987, Ph.D., 1992.
Addresses: Office—Brown University, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, 89 Waterman St., Providence, RI 02912.
P ostdoctoral fellow in psychology, University of British Columbia, 1992-94; assistant member, Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, 1994-2000; Brown University, visiting professor, department of psychology, 2000-05, and Brown University School of Medicine, visiting professor, 2005; published first book, The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell, 2007.
R esearch psychologist Rachel Herz is a leading researcher in a relatively new field of olfactory research, which examines the biological and evolutionary aspects of how human beings perceive and process smell. Affiliated with Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, since 2000, Herz has conducted dozens of experiments that attempt to gauge how and why human beings react so viscerally to certain scents. She discussed many of these trials in her first book for a general audience, The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell, published in 2007. “The way I like to think about it is that emotion and olfaction are essentially the same thing,” she explained to Laura Spinney of London’s Independent about why we perceive some odors as pleasant while others are repulsive. “The part of the brain that controls emotion literally grew out of the part of the brain that controls smell.”
Herz was born in 1963 in Ithaca, New York, but she and her younger brother moved several times during their early childhood years, including two stints in Paris. She was seven when her parents—both academics—settled in Montreal, Canada, and took teaching positions there. Her own college years were spent first at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where she earned her undergraduate degree in psychology in 1985, and then at the University of Toronto, where she earned two advanced degrees in her field. After receiving the doctorate in 1992, Herz won a Canadian government grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council for postdoctoral work at the University of British Columbia. In 1994, she joined the faculty of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, the first scientific institute for multidisciplinary research on taste, smell, and chemosensory irritation in the world when it was founded in 1968. She spent six years there before joining the faculty of Brown University in 2000 where she first held a visiting professorship with the department of psychology, and then with the School of Medicine since 2005.
At Brown, Herz teaches a course called “Olfaction and Human Behavior,” and conducts scientific studies whose findings have been published in an array of professional journals. As she explained in an article she wrote for the July 2000 issue of The Sciences, a professional journal, “olfactory information is the key form of communication for all the most critical aspects of behavior—recognizing kin, finding a reproductively available mate, locating food, and determining whether an animal or object is dangerous. Smell was the first sense to evolve,” she asserted. Herz’s experiments explore various aspects of this basic human function. One involved manipulating how scents were labeled, and observed how an unpleasant label can cause subjects to perceive an odor as foul, even when they had rated the exact same smell as very pleasant with another label. Another addressed the matter of whether humans can smell odors while sleeping, and the resulting negative findings reaffirmed a crucial public-safety need for auditory smoke alarms in homes, because the even the uniquely pungent, acrid odor of smoke would not be detected by deeply sleeping inhabitants.
Another one of Herz’s research trials used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology, a form of brain scan. In this case, she gave her subjects a scent, and then an image associated with the same scent. The fMRI could detect which of the two triggered the stronger responses in the amygdale, the area of the brain that processes emotion and emotional memory. The scent, rather than the image, provoked a more intense response in the brain, but Herz was intrigued by the responses that came when she asked the subjects of their recollections associated with the scent. “People don’t remember any more detail or with any more clarity when the memory is recalled with an odor,” she explained to Spinney in the Independent article. “However, with the odor, you have this intense emotional feeling that’s really visceral.”
Herz’s work has also investigated the memory evo-cation known as the “Proust phenomenon,” named after French writer Marcel Proust and his most famous work, the 1913 novel Remembrance of Things Past. Akey element of the novel is the bite its narra-tor takes into a madeleine cookie he has dipped in linden-blossom tea; both the scent and the taste bring the memory of an event from his past flooding back to him in rich detail. In an article she wrote about this famous literary moment for The Sciences, Herz asserted that “it is that connection to long-forgotten events that makes the Proust phenomenon so exhilarating. The rush of vivid, emotionally charged memory linked to a lost love or a childhood event can make the past appear more powerful than the present. That such vividness could be merely an illusion—a product of the intimate tangle of smell, memory, and emotion—seems no reason not to revel when coming across the right scent.”
Herz’s first book for a mainstream audience, The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell, was published in 2007. In it, she recounts her scores of studies and the often-surprising findings they yield, and noted in an interview on her Web site that her next book would likely be an examination of the role that scent plays in sexual attraction. Her own personal experience in this realm dates back to the Nino Cerutti fragrance worn by her first boyfriend, she said. “Although the last time I smelled it on him was almost 25 [years] ago I use this scent now as a memory test and every few years I sniff the empty bottle that I’ve kept at my parents’ house to see if I can conjure up the memory of those early days. It still works.” She has also saved a since-discontinued perfume her mother wore when Herz was a child. “Whenever I go to these fragrance bottles and uncork the genie inside, I always feel infused with a wonderful, powerful happiness. My emotions are at least partly due to the fact that I am still amazed at how smell, like none of my other senses, can transport me to a different time and place.”
The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell, HarperCollins, 2007.
Dallas Morning News, April 8, 2002.
Houston Chronicle, January 3, 2007, p. 1.
Independent (London, England), March 24, 2004, p. 8.
The Sciences, July 2000, p. 34.
“A Conversation with Rachel Herz,” Rachel Herz’s Official Site, http://www.rachelherz.com (August 3, 2007).