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“Phantom Odors” Could Be Fairly Common, and May Point to Health Risks

Over the centuries, people who have claimed to have experiences with ghostly phenomena describe a variety of different unusual things. Among these are mists, forms, or even “apparitions” they claim to have seen in their environment; others recount sensing presences nearby, hearing unusual sounds to which no ordinary source can be found, or even smelling unusual odors that may seem out of place.

However, new research suggests that the particular phenomenon of “phantom odors” may not only be explainable, but that it’s also more common than once thought… and that it could also be an indicator of certain health concerns.

A recent study says that the phenomenon where people perceive strange odors that don’t actually exist may be experienced by a little more than six percent of the population. The study found “that 1 in 15 Americans over the age of 40 detect strange odors…  when nothing is actually there,” CNBC reports.

The cross-sectional study gathered data from 7,417 adults, and also found a prevalence of the phantom odor phenomenon among women and children, as well as those “of lower socioeconomic position.”

However, among those reporting the phenomenon more often were also people who suffered from various health conditions, as well as those who had suffered head injuries in the past, or such conditions as “dry mouth symptoms.”

Some who claim to have paranormal experiences describe smelling smoke, perfume, and floral scents at purportedly haunted locations.

“Phantom odors” are often likened by those who experience them to the scent produced by burning hair, rotting meat, and various other unpleasant odors; this contrasts somewhat with odors people associate with paranormal claims, which are often reminiscent of a loved one in some way, such as flowers or the scent of perfume.

According to the study’s authors, the perception of phantom odors may decline among some groups over time, but the associations with poor health are evident:

“An age-related decline in the prevalence of phantom odor perception is observed in women but not in men. Only 11% (n = 64) of people who report phantom odor perception have discussed a taste or smell problem with a clinician. Associations of phantom odor perception with poorer health and persistent dry mouth point to medication use as a potential explanation. Prevention of serious head injuries could have the added benefit of reducing phantom odor perception.”

In other words, those who suffered from poor health, whether or not their conditions were diagnosed, were more likely to report experiencing perceived odors when none actually existed.

The study was featured in JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surgery, and the abstract can be found online here.

As goes without saying, the new indicators of the prevalence of the associations between the phenomenon and health conditions warrant greater attention than it has received in the past from the medical community.

With the latest research into causes underlying so-called “phantom odors,” it seems plausible that some of the perceived experiences of those claiming to have had paranormal encounters over time may fall in line with conditions like this. In this context, it represents one of many ways that science is teaching us new things about the paranormal… and the causes underlying things we once considered “unexplained.”

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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