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The Nose Knows

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Smell 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.

The Science of Smell

How 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.

Just 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.

When 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, or nostalgia.

The Dark Ages of Smelling

A keen 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.

Taste and Smell
• 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.

Smell Facts
• 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 it longer.
• 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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