The Nose, an Emotional Time Machine

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

Nose_2 Here is a fun and easy experiment that Rachel Herz of Brown University suggests you try at home, but only if you promise to eat your vegetables first, floss afterward, and are not at risk of a diabetic coma. Buy a bag of assorted jelly beans of sufficiently high quality to qualify, however oxymoronically, as “gourmet.” Then, sample all the flavors in the bag systematically until you are sure you appreciate just how distinctive each one is, because expertise is important and you may never get another excuse this good. Now for the meat of our matter: pinch your nostrils shut and do the sampling routine again. Notice the differences? That’s right — now there are none. Every bean still tastes sweet, but absent a sense of smell you might as well be eating sugared pencil erasers. And if in midchew you unbind your nose, what then? At once the candy’s candid charms return, and you can tell your orange sherbet from a buttered popcorn.

We’ve all heard about the mysterious powers of smell and its importance in love, friendship and food. Yet a simple game like What’s My Bean, and our consistent surprise at the impact of shutting down our smell circuits, shows that we don’t really grasp just how deep the nose goes. At the International Symposium on Olfaction and Taste held in San Francisco late last month, Dr. Herz and other researchers discussed the many ways our sense of smell stands alone. Olfaction is an ancient sense, the key by which our earliest forebears learned to approach or slink off. Yet the right aroma can evoke such vivid, whole body sensations that we feel life’s permanent newness, the grounding of now.

More here.