Smell may be our most evocative sense. Studies have shown that people can recall a scent with 65 percent accuracy after one year; visual memory sinks to 50 percent after just a few months. And because smells are processed by the same part of the brain thant handles memories and emotions- the temporal lobe- we respond to them witih rare intensity. Decades later, a passing scent may symmon a memory of our first-grade classroom, one so vivd that we seem transported across time and space.
Though not on a par with our canine friends’, the human nose is still something of a marvel. An ordinary person can pick up a whiff of skunk when the amount of scent in the air is less than one ten-trillionth of an ounce. The nose can also determine where a smell is coming from, pointing you- for better or worse-toward the source. Still, our sense of smell is deeply individual: some people can’t smell mushrooms; others can’t sniff out freesia. These differences are mostly genetic, but simpler things- small physiological changes and factors like mood and medication enhance or diminish our ability to detect odor. In fact, it’s believed that we never experience a smell the same way twice, since the sensitivity of our nose changes from hour to hour and day to day.
5 things you may not know about smell:
- In general, your sense of smell is weakest in the morning and grows stronger a the day wears on.
- Smells can affect your behavior. A recent study showed that people sitting in a citrus-scented room cooperated more in trust experiments and even offered to make more charitable donations.
- Your sense of smell becomes more acute.
- The ability to detect scents is boosted by estrogen, which is why women (especially pregnant women) tend to have more sensitive noses than men.
- Astronauts in space often lose their senses of smell and taste. Because of the lack of gravity, their sinuses fill up with fluid causing stuffiness like from a cold.
Jennifer Kahn, Parade Magazine July 29, 2012