Don’t Take Your Nose for Granted
A defense of the most underrated sense
This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
In 2011, a majority of young people said they would rather give up their sense of smell than give up Facebook. Ten years later and oh how the times have changed.
Once the most neglected and disrespected sense, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced millions of people to care about their ability to smell — but only after they lost it. As early as March, reports started to accumulate that loss of smell, technically called anosmia, was one of the earliest and most distinguishing symptoms of Covid-19. Suddenly lacking the ability to get whiffs of coffee, freshly cut grass, or a loved one’s aroma can cause people psychological distress, including feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety. There are also serious potential dangers associated with anosmia, like not noticing the smell of smoke or a gas leak.
The silver lining to this global loss of sensation is that smell is finally getting the respect that it deserves, and scientists are able to study scent in a new way, which could help the 3% of Americans who had lost their sense of smell even before the pandemic. (A cliff notes version of the science of smell is below, but if you want a real deep dive, check out Brooke Jarvis’s fascinating feature in last week’s New York Times Magazine.)
Your brain smells so good
Smell has traditionally been an understudied sense, in part because of the assumption that humans are pretty bad at it. While this is true compared to some species like dogs, which have twice the number of odor receptors we do, research has shown that humans actually have perfectly adequate sniffers. In fact, Rutgers University psychologist John McGann writes, “When an appropriate range of odors is tested, humans outperform laboratory rodents and dogs in detecting some odors while being less sensitive to other odors.”
One study from 2014 estimated that humans could smell a whopping 1 trillion scents, orders of magnitude…