Each day, we breathe about 23,040 times and move over 438 cubic feet of air. It takes two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale and during that time odors flood our smell receptors with information.
Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies and emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. - Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses.
Our sense of smell is thousands of times more sensitive than any of our other senses. In less than a millisecond, just one whiff of a familiar smell can trigger memories of childhood, home and family. Smell impulses travel faster than signals from sight or sound because the olfactory system is the only part of the brain that is directly exposed to the air.
The brain processes sensory information delivered through sight, sound, taste and touch by identifying the incoming information first, which in turn generates an emotional response. But our sense of smell is different. It does the opposite. The information of incoming odors first triggers the emotional response and then it is identified. This places our sense of smell at the root of our emotional being.
Aromas delivered directly to the smell receptors in our brain have a powerful effect on behavior. Just think of your response to the smell of a cup of coffee in the morning or your reaction to a dead skunk on the side of the road.
Since birth, your smell receptors have catalogued every scent that passed through your nostrils in an area of the brain which is the size of a postage stamp. Researchers from Rockefeller University showed that the human nose is able to detect at least one trillion distinct scents with each odor having the potential to evoke a memory.
Smell influences our moods, our emotions and the choice of our mates. It is the main organ that contributes to our enjoyment of our sense of taste. Smells warn us of dangers, such as fire, poisonous fumes and spoiled food and gives us awareness of our place in the environment.
Our sense of smell contributes enormously to the quality and enjoyment of our lives, our health and our well being. It is the mind-body interface.
But we take our sense of smell for granted. There are no galleries displaying smells like paintings. There are no concertos written for nose. We do not have special menus of smells created for grand occasions.
Odors cannot be measured on a linear scale like those used to measure the wavelength of light or the frequency of sound. We have not yet developed a smell scale because odorant molecules vary widely in chemical composition and three-dimensional shape.
Our culture places such low value on olfaction that we have never developed a proper vocabulary for it. We have names for all the pastels in a hue but none for the notes and tints of a smell. It is almost impossible to explain how something smells to someone who hasn't smelled it. We go through our daily lives paying little attention to this enigmatic sense.
But this is all about to change. Aromachology – the science of smell – is a new medical frontier that will provide consumers with sophisticated products that use the sense of smell to analyze, manage and enhance behavior, treat diseases, improve performance and deliver an endless range of exotic scents to pleasure this forgotten sense.
We are at the beginning of a smell revolution!