Tag Archives: smell

Tastes like… Smells like…

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.”

And of course I will steer you to Neuroscience for Kids – The Nose Knows for their usual entertaining and enlightening explanation, as well as some easy to perform experiments on smell.

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 ….

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Mussels in Brussels, Bagettes in France

We are spending eleven days in France, where food and culture are tightly intertwined. And if we are talking about food, then we are talking about the sense of taste. Food can be a marvelous entry into memory, the taste of the meal coupled with where it is served, how it is presented, and with who you are eating.

For an overview of how the brain decodes taste, visit Neuroscience for Kids – Taste. Here you will read what you might already know by experience, that the tongue’s taste buds can decipher four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Some researchers believe that a fifth taste may also be present, umami, which has been described as “meatlike”.

A Society for Neuroscience brain briefing on Taste Intensity relates that scientists are researching how taste preferences may impact personal health, in particular looking at supertasters, people who “may experience an overall higher level of tasting ability than others”. Having been a fussy eater as a child (and eating just about everything now!), and having raised two sons, one who still has a highly discriminating palette and the other who has learned to eat almost anything (including raw lobster in Japan!), I know that taste plays a huge role in diet, and that taste and diet can – and often do – change over time.

Taste does not exist in the mouth alone, however; it has a close companion in the nose and smell. The Cornell Center for Materials Research Ask A Scientist article, Taste takes more than just tongues, explains this relationship and also discusses how chemicals – both natural and synthetic – influence our sense of taste. To bring home the relationship between taste and smell, the Exploratorium has a simple experiment you can try with a friend. Check out Newton’s Apple Taste And Smell site for additional experiments and further insight.

But what happens if one or both of these senses does not function properly?

ENT doctors specialize in the treatment of ear, nose and throat ailments. (This is known as otolaryngology, my new word of the day!) The American Academy of Otolaryngology has an informative page on smell and taste – how they work and what happens when they don’t.

Last week we spent three nights in Belgium, including a visit to Brussels, where our friends graciously took us to a dinner of mussels (a Brussels speciality) and then we all attended the Ommegang. My husband and I were last in Europe in 1977, and now we travel with our two sons. Each morning we have a petite dejuner of cocoa, cafe, croissants et bagettes. There is no doubt that the taste and smell of foods from this trip will be indelibly imprinted upon my memories!