Facts about smell

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Don’t underestimate the power of your nose. It makes our everyday eating experience pleasant and interesting. It warns us of spoiled food, corked wine and the dangers of gas and smoke. It evokes strong emotional reactions and can be used as a sensitive analytical instrument.

1. We taste with our nose

Many people think that we do all of our tastings with our tastebuds, but they can only detect if something is sweet, salty, bitter, sour or umami (for example, the savoury taste of Marmite).

The truth is, we also “taste” with our nose, eyes and ears.

2. Not everyone can smell

About 5% of the population is anosmic, which means that they cannot smell. This can be devastating.

Imagine that your food just doesn’t taste of anything apart from a bit sweet and a bit salty.

You can no longer enjoy your favourite foods and eating out is no longer fun.

Also, you can’t smell mouldy bread or sour milk or burning pizza – what if the house caught fire? And one question that haunts anosmics is: do I smell?

These anxieties often lead to an insular lifestyle, depression and a decline in mental health.

3. You don’t need an olfactory bulb to smell

Some people are born without an olfactory bulb, the organ that was previously believed to be essential for the perception of a smell.

While carrying out brain imaging, a group of researchers realised that one of their normal control subjects had no apparent olfactory bulb, yet they obtained normal scores for standardised smell tests.

4. Viral infections can rewire your sense of smell

The common cold is a well-known thief of our sense of smell, albeit usually temporarily.

Yet for some people, their sense of smell doesn’t return after a viral infection such as the common cold, a sinus infection or upper respiratory tract infection.

Researchers believe that as the damaged olfactory neurons are slowly regenerated or repaired, the distortions are a result of cross-wiring in the olfactory bulb.

5. Smell training is better than sudoku

An exercise that helps anosmics to regain their sense of smell is “smell training”.

Researchers believe that systematically exercising the olfactory neurons stimulates growth and repair, much in the same way that physiotherapy promotes injury healing.

The technique was pioneered in Germany and involves actively sniffing (and concentrating) on different smells at least twice a day for several months.

6. Humans can track scents like a dog

Have you ever been amazed at the ability of dogs to follow scent trails and wondered why we can’t? Research in 2017 showed that, in fact, we can.

We don’t have the advantage of the optimised airflow through a dog’s nose, but if we practice a bit – and get down to the level of a dog’s nose – we can effectively track a trail of chocolate aroma laid across a field.

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