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Perspective: The sweet smell of friendship

Alvan Nee

While conducting interviews for my book on friendship, I loved hearing how some people “clicked right from the start” with close friends – whether through shared adversity, mutual friends, or just happenstance – being at the same place at the same time. Influences we can’t see include similarity in brain wave patterns that exists between friends or the role of scent in friendship development.

Our “instant-click friendships” are likely attributable to more than liking the same things or knowing the same people. In fact, instant friendships likely result from a new friend “passing the sniff test.” Our olfactory sense is highly involved in the “instant click” friendship phenomenon.

The sense of smell is the most keenly developed sense in newborns – they can distinguish their mom’s scent basically from birth. And while blue generally looks blue to everyone and “loud” noises are usually “loud” to everyone, the sense of smell varies greatly across folks. What smells amazing to one person may stink to high heaven to another.

Much as our animal friends use their sense of smell to determine if another creature is friend or foe, our olfactory sense subtly picks up the same kind of clue from other humans. You probably don’t realize it, but the body odor of your “instant click” friends is remarkably similar to your own.

Animals intentionally use their sense of smell to assess others, but we aren’t as aware of the role that scent plays in our social bonding. But before you realize it, and before your brainwaves have begun to synch up, you may have already connected to a new friend on a deep unconscious level – the primal level of scent.

I’m Suzanne Degges-White and that’s my perspective.

Chair and Professor - NIU counseling and higher education