It’s All in the Nose

I recently read that out of 7,000 people aged 16 to 30, about 50% would rather lose their sense of smell than access to technology like laptops and cell phones.

So, while you are blissfully unaware of your house burning down around you because you can’t smell the smoke, at least you’ll have your iTunes. Although, frankly, I think iTunes is a fate worse than death.

One might even argue that your sense of smell contributes more towards communication than does social media.

Despite the fact that the human nose is not as highly sensitive as that of other animals, it can still sense at least 1 trillion different odours, and scientists believe it capable of differentiating between far more than that. You can even train your nose to discern between more and more smells – frequent exposure is all it takes!

According to sciency stuff, the odor molecules bind to olfactory receptors which then send electric impulses all over the brain: the thalamus, the piriform cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex (which combines the information with input from the taste system), the hippocampus and amygdala (associated with memory and learning), and the limbic system (commonly viewed as the seat of emotion). That is a lot of activity generated by a simple sniff! In fact, as much as 5% of our DNA is dedicated to olfaction.

Now tell me your nose is stupid.

Let’s go back to that bit about smell affecting emotion. There’s studies about it and stuff. Apparently, the fragrance one detects on meeting a new person will affect one’s impression of that person—whether they are considered ugly or beautiful, attractive or not. It can even affect our judgement of the quality and effectiveness of products or art. 

While aromatherapy has dubious origins and unclear effects, there is no doubt that scent has a powerful impact on the emotions. However, this effect seems to be mostly related to memories and learned behaviour. For example, the reaction of someone who enjoyed multiple delightful cumin-flavoured curries in the comfort of mother’s kitchen to the smell of cumin will differ greatly from that of someone who enjoyed such a curry in reverse bent over the porcelain.

Following that logic, and the fact that scent is a powerful trigger of memory, one can train one’s brain to respond in a certain way to a selected odour. Using lavender oil while in a calm setting and employing other methods of relaxation could teach the brain to wind down with just a sniff of purple fragrance. Pleasant olfactory stimuli associated with a safe or pleasant event or place have been shown to reduce anxiety and could be effective treatments for various psychiatric conditions. 

So, next time you have a sudden, unexpected emotional response, take note of the smells around you. Perhaps you recognised a scent you associate with danger or a strong memory was triggered. Either way, don’t take that highly intelligent proboscis for granted.

Now you nose.



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It’s All in the Nose
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