Thursday, October 16, 2014

ABC Wednesday: N is for Nosy

New kitten - active nose
Although cats don't get as much information via the nose as dogs, my cats smell first with their little mouths open and ask questions later. Their mouths are open so they can expose air and aroma to their Jacobsen's Organ located behind the front teeth. Some people say cats are smiling when they have that odd look on their faces, but they aren't necessarily happy - just figuring things out.

We humans suffer mightily in the smell detection arena by comparison. Cats have between 80,000,000 and 100,000,000 odor sensing cells; dogs have over 200,000,000; we have a measly 6,000,000. My favorite canine sniffer is the blood hound. That lovable droopy face with all the saggy wrinkles serves an olfactory purpose. Aroma molecules dissolve in the sticky moisture that leaks from their eyes and gets trapped in the wrinkles, retaining more available smelly material  for the nose than dry-faced dogs have. The floppy ears provide an evolutionary advantage.  As it sniffs the ground the dog swings it's head from side to side and the dancing ears roil up odor molecules and waft them up to the nose.  An aroma we perceive as a whiff must be sensorily like a ten-ton truck to this animal's  nose.

In the end, the European Eel wins the smell detection contest, hands down. It has a sense of smell/perception so acute that it can detect the equivalent of a shot of vodka in Lake Erie. If you're looking for a bar on a rainy night you want an Eel wrapped around your GPS.

The average human can recognize up to 2000 odors. A trained person such as a "nose" in the perfume industry can learn to recognize up to 10,000.  I used to keep a vial of a flavor unfamiliar to me on my desk and "learn" it for a week, then change to another. I've retired this activity and now get my olfactory thrills from the garden and the perfume counter at Macy's where I spend too much time sniffing and not buying.

We never stop smelling - we can rest our other senses; put in ear plugs, close our eyes, shut our mouths. But we can never stop breathing. We smell each other and the world around us, breathing in 20,000 times per day and in every breath from 200,000 to 2,000,000 microscopic bits - stuff that's constantly floating around in the air: clay, ash from forest fires and volcanoes,  soil, fungus viruses, bacteria, rusts, molds, algae, spores to name only a few. Fortunately we "adapt" to aromas and once the brain has gotten the necessary information, it switches off and gives us a break. When you walk into a freshly painted room the impact of the smell is overwhelming but it soon eases off and disappears unless you focus on it. In the food business when our noses adapt, we sniff the inside of our arm (a part we keep unlotioned) which re-calibrates the sensory mechanism and gets the nose going again. There's nothing particularly magical about the's just handy (arggghh). In the perfume business, they sniff coffee beans. In fact, a couple of minutes of fresh air will do it, but you often can't do that when you're busy evaluating products and you're in an office building.

When we perceive aromas our limbic system is involved. Although it's a very complicated response, you could say that this area is the seat of memory and emotion. Aroma perception is very direct - we sniff and the limbic system gets the message directly - no complicated neural transfer like happens for instance with sight. This is why aroma is so evocative and can instantly arouse emotion....the aroma of something cooking, a perfume, the new car smell.  That wonderful whiff.

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ABC Wednesday


  1. The nose has it! Very informational.


    1. We take all our complicated sensory mechanisms for granted.

  2. Fascinating stuff! My wife gets upset that I can't always smell that the garbage needs to go out until I'm right on top of it. I need to try harder...

    SamuraiFrog, ABCW

    1. Your brain is protecting you from the doesn't like taking out the garbage.