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Source: Gilbert, Avery: THE WISDOM OF THE NOSE, The science of smell applied to everyday life, Ediciones B, México 2009 (www.averygilbert.com)

How much olfactory capacity do humans have?

Our olfactory capacity is much higher than we think. We have generated, preached and sustained a series of myths against this reality.

Except in cases of disease, it is demonstrable that high olfactory capacity is common to all human beings. People with a higher capacity are cases of true exception.

The olfactory capacity of an ordinary person is enough for him to develop as a perfumer, taster or sommelier.

New evidence suggests that humans and animals may be more similar in smell perception than we thought.

What makes the difference between one person and another lies in the cognitive; that is, in memory. That is, in associating what the smell detects, with the name that one remembers: vanilla, cherry, walnut, freshly cut grass ...

Therefore, to take advantage of our high olfactory capacity, the first step is to accept that we have it; and the second is to be interested and do what is necessary to learn: identify the aromas that objects and substances give off; memorize each aroma with its origin; practice and practice.

Since the cognitive is the necessary complement to take advantage of our olfactory capacity, we must also be attentive to "suggestion". That is, to mythically attribute the effects of an aroma.

Some notes from the book

  • Although five flavor channels are not negligible, they are rudimentary compared to the 350 different receptors and the two dozen perceptual categories available for olfaction.
  • What we usually call "flavor" (strawberry, spinach, chocolate, etc.) is actually smell. This happens because we smell what we eat from the inside out. These days this is known as aftertaste or retronasal olfaction, but I prefer the name Finck gave it: a "second olfactory pathway."
  • The world of olfaction is full of irrational beliefs and myths whose only foundation is to praise some ("so and so is the expert, because he has a natural gift") or to screen and amuse everyone (how impressive!)
  • The olfactory capacity of a human being is so high, that some studies do not discover adverse effects of smoking.
  • Dogs and humans have almost identical sensitivity to methyl benzoate, the scent used to locate cocaine.
  • Dogs have large noses but this does not mean that humans do not have a very high olfactory capacity.
  • The average person probably detects odors at roughly the same concentration as the professional wine taster. What the expert has are cognitive abilities that make better use of the same sensory information. The expert's advantage (wine taster, perfumer…) consists more in a cerebral faculty than in a nasal faculty, and is based on the regular exercise of these specialized mental capacities.
  • Expert wine tasters outperform newbies by matching their own descriptions (which they write down) to wines they have previously tasted. Mental discipline helps experts avoid a trap called the "verbal eclipsing effect" that newbies can fall into when the effort to generate a verbal label interferes with the perception of the scent itself.
  • Only people with superior noses can appreciate the subtle effects of the shape of the glass.
  • Perfumers Robert Calkin and Stephen Jellinek believe that a proper nose is enough to do their job. What counts for career success are specific mental abilities and thought processes.
  • The superiority of the feminine sense of smell is partly due to the fact that women have greater verbal fluency; Verbal abilities improve performance on smell memory and odor identification tests.
  • Hellen Keller died in 1968, but she remains a symbol of the belief that blindness makes people super snuffers by way of compensation. But it has been proven that the superiority of the blind in identifying odors depends on cognitive factors such as memory rather than extraordinary acuity in perception.
  • Eating bread and crackers at wine tasting, or sherbet between courses at a French restaurant, doesn't sharpen your palate. This is: our olfactory capacity is sufficient and it does not need much help from us.
  • Properly pairing a wine is pleasant, but it does not improve a taster's perception. Again: our olfactory capacity is sufficient and does not need much help from us.

Notes on suggestion

  • The commonly recognized power of scent derives largely from the power of suggestion.
  • A judge's expectations of wine change when the glass can be seen.
  • The brain of a patient senses damage to a sensory message that does not cause alarm in a healthy person… Even the most innocuous scents become objectionable if they remind us of an unpleasant experience.
  • Imagination has a lot to do with the harmful effect of perfumes.
  • What we believe in a smell, and the malevolent power we attribute to it, alters our sensory perceptions and our physiological responses. This should not come as a surprise: we believe that the smell makes us attractive, relaxed, attentive.
  • The scientific study of olfactory memory is currently in a state of flux. After a long and fruitless detour spent quantifying a literary fiction, the idea that smell is unique among the senses is being abandoned.
  • If olfactory memory is like other forms of memory, why is it perceived as so magical that a smell spurs a memory? In large part it has to do with surprise. One was not trying to remember the paints, oils, and solvents in grandfather's workshop, but the memory jumps without one wondering about it, passing through a plume of random smell. What's even more surprising: we didn't make a deliberate effort to memorize those smells when we were seven years old. If we had, the memory would not surprise us.
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