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is an amazing and complex function carried out in a tiny chamber,
half the size of an egg, situated just behind our nose. With it,
we are able to smell thousands of different odors.
Science of Smell
do we smell things? The mystery is still unfolding, but it starts
with “odor molecules.” Scientists tell us the air
is filled with them. They enter your nasal cavity every time you
breathe, 23,000 times a day.
behind your nose, these molecules are absorbed by mucous covered
tissue. This tissue is covered with “receptor” cells.
(Some scientists say you have millions of them.) Each one is mounted
on a microscopic hair. The receptor cells stick out and wave in
the air currents we inhale. Forty of them must detect odor molecules
before a smell is registered.
a new smell is detected, the tiny olfactory bulb, located just
above the nasal cavity, flashes data directly to the most ancient
and mysterious part of your brain - the limbic system - which
“handles feelings, lust, instincts, and invention.”
The limbic system reacts immediately, without intervention of
reason or language, and may provoke powerful emotions, images,
Dark Ages of Smelling
sense of smell is now accepted as part of the good life. The smell
of coffees, wines, cheeses, and gourmet foods would all be lost
on us if we lacked our immense range of smell. However, this faculty
wasn't always appreciated.
The ancient philosopher Plato looked down on smell as a lowly
instinct that might lead to gluttony and lust, while vision and
hearing opened one to geometry and music and were therefore “closer
to the soul.”
During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was commonly believed that
many diseases were caused by smells. Odors from corpses, feces,
urine, swamps, and Earth fissures were called “miasmas”
and were thought to have the power to kill you. To ward off these
smells, people carried and inhaled “antimephitics,”
such as garlic, amber, sulphur, and incense. When exposed to miasmic
odors, people did not swallow their saliva, but spit it out. The
Viennese physician, Semmelweis was ostracized by colleagues when
he declared that washing one's hands, not breathing antimephitics,
would stop most disease from spreading.
• According to some sources, the stethoscope was invented
not to hear the heartbeat better, but to give doctors some distance
from a patient's bodily odors.
• We taste only four things: sweet, sour, salt and bitter.
It's the smells that make things really taste. For example, wine's
smell, not its taste, is what makes it delicious. With a head
cold, drinking wine is an entirely different experience.
• Scientists have categorized smells into seven groups:
minty like peppermint, floral like roses, ethereal like pears,
musky like well-musk, resinous like camphor, foul like rotten
eggs, and acrid like vinegar.
• Talking with your mouth full expels taste molecules and
diminishes the taste of food.
• Women have a keener sense of smell than men.
• By simply smelling a piece of clothing, most people can
tell if it was worn by a woman or man.
• Each of us has an odor that is, like our fingerprints,
unique. One result, researchers say: Much of the thrill of kissing
comes from smelling the unique odors of another's face.
• Smells stimulate learning. Students given olfactory stimulation
along with a word list retain much more information and remember
• Many smells are heavier than air and can be smelled only
at ground level.
• We smell best if we take several short sniffs, rather
than one long one.
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