Brain Pickings

World Science Festival: Scents and Sensibilities, or How Smell Works

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From pheromones to disease detection via smell, or what your nose has to do with the neurochemistry of nostalgia.

Smell is often considered the most primal and most evocative of our senses. But how does it really work, and what exactly is its secret language? That’s exactly what Scents and Sensibilities explores — a fascinating 90-minute program from the World Science Festival, covering everything from pheromones to the smell of fear to how scent influences behavior to the incredible sentimental value of smells. The full program is now available online in its entirety, an absolute treat of fascination and self-knowledge.

Smell is the only human sense that brings floating molecules from our environment into direct contact with our neurons.”

Particularly intriguing is this segment by neuroscientist and olfactory researcher Leslie Vosshall on how smell actually works and the complex chemical interplay of scents:

Once you go beyond three [olfactory] components, people are completely stumped because the 400 receptors start interacting. It will be like A + B = Z, so a completely different precept emerges, which is why perfumery ends up being so empirical and so artistic. You can predict what you’ll get when you mix two colors, you actually can’t predict what will happen when you mix two smells.” ~ Leslie Vosshall

For more on this infinitely fascinating subject, see Avery Gilbert’s excellent What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

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