A familiar aroma has the ability to transport us back to a different time in life or remind us of a specific place or person. Scents are deeply connected to memory and emotion, playing a significant role in how we view the world around us.
But why do smells trigger memories? This week – we highlight the power of smell, how our noses process these scents and what it’s like when you lose your sense of smell.
- Sharan Sampath.
- Jude Stewart, journalist, author of Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell.
Links for Additional Info:
21-51 Our Deep Reliance on Scent
Gary Price (00:06):
Illinois resident Sharan Sampath tested positive for COVID-19 last December, while thankfully Sampath didn’t get extremely sick. She did end up losing her senses of smell and taste. She thought she was in the clear after both soon returned, until six months later out of nowhere, she lost them again. Fast forward to today and she’s still grappling with distorted smell and taste.
Sharan Sampath (00:32):
So all of a sudden we didn’t know, like, does this smell right? Is this okay? Even if we had like milk, we couldn’t smell to see if it is still good. There’s so much that relies on your sense of smell. And once it’s gone, you’re like, ugh, this is like a whole part of my life is like dysfunctional now.
Gary Price (00:51):
For those who can smell, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like with this issue. Humans form many memories through the nose as scents are all around us, whether they are momentary or long lasting. Getting a whiff of a certain smell can transport us back to a specific time place or person. For instance, the bold aroma freshly brewed coffee can bring about a comforting and awakening feeling, while the lingering smell of tobacco might elicit a negative memory of a specific person or place. For Sampath scents like jasmine, which she used to gravitate towards, now smell powdery and musty instead of floral and bright. In some cases, she can no longer remember the original scents of some of the things she once loved.
Sharan Sampath (01:38):
I used to put minty essential oil in my diffuser and it smelled terrible. So now I don’t even remember what mint is supposed to smell like. I forgot it. It’s the strangest thing. Even oranges, anything citrusy smells like it’s gone rancid. And I remember really loving the smell of citrus. There’s just something refreshing about it. And now I’m like, I don’t know what it’s supposed to smell like anymore.
Gary Price (02:04):
It can be difficult to break down and describe what a certain smell is like. A similar scenario would be trying to explain to a person what the color red is if they’ve never seen it before. How do you put into words what freshly cut grass smells like or the scent of a Christmas pine tree? It’s a unique and puzzling division that only the hundreds of highly specialized receptors in our nose can piece together.
Jude Stewart (02:30):
Scientists really don’t understand why it is that a certain receptor can identify a certain smell as what it is. We have 400 types, but we have the ability to distinguish between anywhere between 80 million to a theoretical 1 trillion smells—there’s some dispute about that high end—but you know, 400 types versus 80 million is a big range. So clearly each of the receptors are capable of doing extraordinary numbers of things.
Gary Price (02:56):
That’s Jude Stewart, a journalist and the author of Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell. Stewart has been sniffing and analyzing different scents for years. She’s always been enamored by the complexity of smell and the powerful abilities of the nose itself. One of the reasons why scents are so connected to emotion and memory is because of where these signals are directed to in the brain.
Jude Stewart (03:22):
The olfactory bulbs are the area that, um, receives these signals from the receptors. And they are pretty much the closest that your brain gets to being exposed to the outside world. And that’s really where the smells are processed for the brain. So what’s interesting is that bypasses your thalamus and all your view brain structures and the olfactory bulbs are instead kind of tangled up with your old brain structures, including your amygdala, which controls your emotions and hippocampus, which is responsible for a lot of memory making. So there is a very good reason in your brain why it’s hard to put your name, a label to smells and why it’s so tied up in memory and a sense of emotion.
Sharan Sampath (04:12):
And the olfactory receptors that send these signals aren’t just in the nose. Stewart says smell is a much more comprehensive system than most assume.
Jude Stewart (04:12):
Actually there are olfactory receptors all throughout your body. So they are lining your skin, your muscles, kidneys, lungs. And so, really what they’re equipped to do is sense chemicals. So if you think about it inside your body, there are a lot of different instances where, you know, an oncoming, a change in chemical balance or something might require like a response by a certain organ. So like a kidney is a perfect example or somewhere in your digestive tract. So it’s kind of crazy, but there are parts of your body beyond your nose that are just constantly smelling.
Gary Price (04:41):
Stewart herself actively seeks out these interesting aromas daily. What’s one of the weirdest scents she’s ever smelled? Durian, a spiky yellow fruit originating from Southeast Asia.
Jude Stewart (04:53):
It smells like kind of rotting onions, I would say. And then the inside is this beautiful creamy, orange, yellow custardy type interior. And so it’s a really weird, constantly weird amalgam between the stink and the beautiful sweet taste, often eaten and ice cream. So I ate a lot of durian ice cream. We made it by hand and I just wanted to become friendly with the smell that it was initially very off-putting. So that was a fun experience.
Gary Price (05:16):
Outside of food, scents are big business for many brands, from candles to cologne, people identify with some fragrances over others. Perfumes in particular change over wear time and are unique to each person. Stewart points to one common ingredient found in men’s cologne called oud, that she finds interesting.
Jude Stewart (05:37):
The origin of it is a particular type of wood. So there’s an insect will attack this particular kind of tree. And when it does, the tree makes this response by creating like a very hard resin around the area of infection. So as to inoculate the rest of the tree. And that super hard wood is very rich, beautiful smelling wood. And that becomes oud. And I was interested in that because it’s a perfume that’s very prevalent in a culture outside of my own. And it’s also very common among men.
Gary Price (06:03):
Another lesser known ingredient used to stabilize perfumes is ambergris, which comes from an unusual source.
Jude Stewart (06:12):
I talked to a New Zealand, ambergris dealer, and she sent me some tiny little lumps of ambergris, which is a perfume ingredient that comes from a very weird source. It’s from sperm whales—basically whale poop. And it cures in the ocean for a really long time and then washes up on shore. And when it’s really fresh, it smells like poop. And then when it’s been curing for a very long time, it has this beautiful floral like kind of top note, that’s kind of scintillating and really something special. So she sent me one that was fairly poopy and one that was semi poopy and then one that was had the beginnings of that beautiful top note smell. So that was really an interesting one to encounter in person
Gary Price (06:50):
Smell is weird and evocative, but it’s a universal trait. Stewart highlights that in some cultures around the war, people rely on smell as a way of greeting or embracing others.
Jude Stewart (07:02):
So in the Arab world, there’s this practice of nose kissing. And so you press your nose against the other person’s nose, the bridge of it, and then you can breathe each other’s smell in. And so that’s sort of a very close contact if you think about it. So New Guineans have a practice of putting their hands in each other’s armpit. So, a sort of handshake, but goes right past the hands to the armpit. And then you sniff your fingers, which I thought was kind of sweet.
Gary Price (07:27):
Even here in the U.S., when we hug our friends or family members, it’s not only about touch or what we see, but also their scent, which can be familiar and comforting. For Sampath, she misses these little things and hopes her smell and taste come back soon. Because without it life just isn’t the same.
Sharan Sampath (07:46):
Even now, there’s times where I’m just like, I’m just not hungry because nothing smells right. Nothing tastes right. It, it is very crippling in a way.
Gary Price (07:53):
Smell is a unique sense to say the least. Next time you’re out and about try making a conscious effort to pinpoint the different smells and aromas swirling around you. To find out more about this topic and our guests, Jude Stewart and Sharon Sampath, visit viewpointsradio.org. Also check out Stewart’s new book, Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell available online and in bookstores now. For more behind the scenes, search @viewpointsradio on Twitter and Facebook. This segment was written and produced by Amirah Zaveri. I’m Gary Price.
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