An author studying the science of smelling temporarily lost his own ability to smell, NPR reported. Harold McGee lived in an odorless world for some time while suffering from and recovering from a sinus infection. The olfactory sense plays many roles.
According to NPR, one cruel twist of irony almost ruined an author’s new book. “Food science writer Harold McGee was in the middle of writing Nose Dive, his book about the science of smell, when he woke up one morning and realized he couldn’t smell his own coffee,” the article said.
“Loss of smell has since become associated with COVID-19; in McGee’s case, it was the byproduct of a sinus infection. Over the course of a few months, McGee’s sense of smell gradually returned, but he still remembers what it was like to live in an odorless world.”
McGee’s book details how our sense of smell is actually a major part of our sense of taste and how we enjoy food. This is just one of many wonders of the nose.
The Nose Knows
Our olfactory sense—our sense of smell—plays a key role in our survival. For example, most gas stoves run on methane, which is an odorless and flammable gas. According to Dr. Peter M. Vishton, Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary, utility companies add a chemical called T-butyl mercaptan to it, which is what we smell when there’s a gas leak. Its distinct odor is unmistakable; though, our noses help us survive more directly as well.
“Most people take for granted that their senses of taste and smell can tell them, for instance, when food has spoiled,” Dr. Vishton said. “At a few times in your life—maybe a few dozen—you will somehow be presented with food that has decayed and often been invaded by bad bacteria. These bacteria sometimes produce toxins that can be extremely harmful to your health.”
Anyone who’s had food poisoning knows what that’s like. However, we’ve likely been made aware by the smell of bad food—or, at least, on first taste—that it should be avoided.
All Is Pheromones in Love and War
Additionally, our noses can detect things that the rest of our brain doesn’t even register. Pheromones are a perfect example.
“In humans and other animals, there’s some evidence that we can be influenced even by some smells that we’re unable to detect,” Dr. Vishton said. “If several women live together, it’s commonly observed that their ovulation schedules will synchronize.
“This is caused by the release of certain pheromones that can’t be consciously detected. Something in the female olfactory systems is clearly able to detect it, however.”
Dr. Vishton said that in one slightly gross experiment, male participants were asked to wear a T-shirt for 24 hours and not wash it. Photos of the men were taken and given to another group of participants who were asked to rate the men on a scale of 1 to 10 on their attractiveness. Then other participants smelled the shirts and rated them on the same scale, from unattractive to attractive smells.
“Studies like this consistently find a positive correlation between these ratings,” he said. “People who look good seem also to smell good.”
From avoiding spoiled food to detecting pheromones, our noses do a lot more than just telling us where the cookies are or that the baby needs a change. It’s easy for us to take the sense of smell for granted until the moment it’s gone.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton contributed to this article. Dr. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University.