As with taste, smell has the ability to overwhelm our senses and conjure up strong memories. Partially that is because taste and smell work in concert with one another, and partially it is that smells can cause us to react strongly, for better or worse. Think of the smell of an annoyed skunk or of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies or spoiled fish or your favorite homemade meal or something burning.
This last smell is an important one, for the brain is wired to be on the look out for danger. As a matter of survival the amygdala is continually on the alert for situations that may require action, thus you can appreciate the importance of being able to discriminate between smells. Indeed, smell is so powerful that information about it gets sent not only to the amygdala but also to the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and thalamus, which all play a role in processing emotions and making memories.
The Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit organization with a mission to study taste, smell and chemosensory (which means sensitive to chemical stimuli) irritation, has several interesting research overviews on:
• Sensation & Perception
• Neuroscience & Molecular Biology
• Environmental & Occupational Health
• Nutrition & Appetite
• Health & Well-Being
• Chemical Ecology & Communication
Reading the various articles brings home, once again, the interrelatedness of our senses and our brain components.
The Society for Neuroscience brain briefing: Smell and the Olfactory System provides an informative primer on how the sense of smell works. It also taught me that the olfactory system “is one of the oldest and most vital parts of the brain.”
Ah, here I am still in France, tasting and olfacting my way through the Loire Valley. Breathing in the smells of food and the lush green surroundings ….