The Weird Sense That Might Predict How Many Friends You Have

Bizarre, counterintuitive studies appear on the internet all the time, suggesting that red wine cures every disease ever or dark chocolate is the key to happiness. Both of which might be true!

But even by strange-study standards, this one stands out: researchers have found that a person's sense of smell may predict the number of friends they have, because humans are just animals and that makes perfect sense. That, and everyone enjoys smelling things, right?

Does the nose really know?

The sense of smell is important in the animal kingdom, and although human beings are definitely members, we tend to rely less on this sense than other animals. Take, for example, our canine companions, who learn all sorts of things from sniffing their friends' butts, and other critters who use smell to get around in their little animal worlds. However, it still plays an important part in our lives, and a group of scholars decided to study how our sense of smell relates to how many homies we have.

Wait. What? Really? Yes, really. While there are a ton of factors that contribute to our friend-making abilities, apparently our sense of smell may play a bigger role than most people realize -- and yes, this is as weird and "out there" as it sounds. Science is nothing if not weird, though, and the fact that a group of researchers chose to delve into our noses and brains to see how it all connects to our posse is pretty amazing.

The researchers for this particular study used a laboratory test amusingly called "Sniffin' Sticks" to tease out just how much the test subjects could or couldn't smell. Who says scientists don't have fun, with their Sniffin' Sticks and all?! They did all the proper researcher-ish things to sort their humans beforehand, such as requiring that they lived in a particular area, were right-handed, didn't suffer from ear, nose, or throat problems, and had no prior history of psychosis, depression, suicide, epilepsy, or drug abuse.

They also quizzed them on how far flung or tiny their social networks were, and along with a few other science-y tests (including MRI scans and tabulating all the Sniffin' Sticks data), came to the conclusion that those with a sharper sense of smell had more friends than those who were olfactorily challenged.

No butt sniffing required!

Yes, this may sound weird, but the scientists have a possible explanation. They suggest that we humans, much like our butthole-sniffing dog best friends, may gather chemical information via the nose from our companions, co-workers, and strangers on the subway, without even noticing it. And the good news? We're not required to crouch down and create awkward social situations in doing so.

So, in turn, with more information available to us via our snout (and our brain, which is responsible for important stuff like processing and sorting through the multitudes of information it gets on the regular), a better nose helps us communicate better in social situations.

Also, don't forget that our beaks probably help our gonads, too, as this Very Important T-shirt sniffing study demonstrated: more testosterone started pumping through the bodies of men when they smelled T-shirts worn by women near ovulation, compared with when they smelled T-shirts worn by women far from ovulation or T-shirts worn by no one at all. This effect, the researchers suggested, likely facilitates so-called "romantic courtship" (pretty sure scientists can't say "banging" in research papers) when reproduction is most likely. Use protection, is the point. Wait, no, the point is that your sense of smell works even when you're not aware of it.

There is some important brain stuff going on behind the scenes as well, which wraps up the study nicely. "Furthermore, our results suggest that there is a common neural circuitry that subserves olfactory sensitivity and social network size," the report reads. What this means is that there's probably a part of the human brain that deals with both your sense of smell and how well you mesh with others. It's all connected, giving more credence to the notion that how well you smell may dictate the size of your social network -- sensitive nose, more connections.

So, yes. Those with a better sense of smell in this study tended to have a wider social circle, and vice versa. While the researchers admit that the scale of the study was pretty small (only 31 participants), the results -- published by Nature, by the way, so not some alternative, sketchy journal -- suggest further research with a wider scope should be undertaken. If so, it will be interesting to see what the next study reveals -- and whether we need to resort to butt sniffing to get the best results when making friends.

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Monica Beyer is a health writer who doesn't have a super-sensitive smeller, so you pretty much know what that means. Follow her: @monicabeyer.