A Yardstick For The Nose

nickel noseMy newest column for Discover is about that strangest of the senses, smell. An odor can be an overwhelming experience, and yet it’s often impossible to put that experience into words. In fact, we’re terrible at naming smells, despite being exquisitely sensitive to the differences between them. I take a look at some recent research that may bring us closer to resolving this paradox, with the invention of the first yardstick for the nose–a simple measurement of odor molecules that reveals a lot about how pleasant or vile we find them. Not only might it help us understand our own noses, but it may even let us build electronic noses to sniff for things we don’t want to stick our own noses in. Check it out.

0 thoughts on “A Yardstick For The Nose

  1. A very interesting article however I was disappointed that no mention was made of the pregnant human female who is notorious for having an altered sense of smell. Apart from the various food cravings during pregnancy most women experience heightened awareness of odours. In particular a story of one women aged 25yrs approx 10 weeks gestation begs further explanation, she walked into her workplace and literally walked into a wall of malodourous yukness. Trouble was nobody else could smell anything remotely unpleasant. The woman was me….the smell was awful, chemical, poisonous sprang to mind. Anyway turns out the place had been laid with pesticide, ant powder. The poisons unit advised to stay away untill the powder was cleared as no info was available for potential risk to my developing baby. My question is….how could I in my pregnant state smell something so strongly whilst nobody else could , especially as I had no idea the poison was there? Iwonder how the odour yardstick accounts for fluctuations in individual sensitivity to odour .

  2. p.s with regard to individual fluctuations of sensitivity, I meant along the lines of trimesters, as emotions and saiety etc have been covered in the article.

  3. In 2004 Axel and Buck got the Nobel prize for identifying the family of olfactory receptor genes, finding approximately 300 unique receptor molecules — each with its own class of receptor neurons in the olfactory epithelium. Additionally, all neurons within the same class converge onto a small group of neurons in the olfactory bulb. I would guess that these receptor types are the olfactory primaries. Certainly, it would be great if the primaries discovered through psychophysics could be matched with the specific receptors or groups of receptors. I would assume that this is the direction research is going.

    If it turns out there are 300 olfactory primaries, its not surprising that its hard to deconstruct olfactory perceptions.

    (I’m not very current on olfactory research; if someone knows more, please correct me or fill in the blanks).

    Another point. I think of face perception as a good analogy to olfactory perception: where people can make sensitive discriminations, but are largely unaware of the analytic process the discrimination is based on. Try describing a familiar face to someone who hasn’t seen the person. You can’t get very far.

  4. I’ve participated in those tests where you’re blindfolded and then given various flavors and asked to name them. It is the darndest thing … you know they’re familiar, that you’ve tasted them before, but you can’t bring the name to mind. It is incredibly disorienting.

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