Witness Post: Sense of Smell
ONE Instance: The smell of ozone before a storm fills my nose with memory: summer lightning storms in New Mexico with the crack of thunder, the deafening sound of hail pelting on the tin panels, and the gully washer of a rainfall pouring off the Mess Hall roof. The scent fills my head to the brim and I smile. Why are smells so attached to our memory?
SECOND Instance: A woman, who was staying as a guest at the Inn at Arch Cape, called to complain that the smell of smoke was so intense in one room, there must have been a fire there recently. After assuring her that the housekeeper had deep cleaned the room and that no fire had been in the fireplace for the previous two weeks, we offered to have her move. Instead she opened all of the windows and doors, asked for a room fan, and said she would suffer with it. My wife went to the room and said that it did not smell any different than it had the previous day. Are there such people as super-scenters, who have extraordinarily acute senses of smell?
THIRD Instance: The head cold filled my head with mucus and pain. I could not smell a thing. My taste buds went dead at the same time. Nothing tasted good, not even the hot mint scented tea. It was impenetrable. How are taste and smell so intertwined in our experiences of food and the pleasure of eating?
FOURTH Instance: When my wife was going through chemo-therapy, her tongue hurt to many foods. She has a powerful metallic taste in her mouth that overwhelmed her normal taste sensation. Coke carbonation burned, foods had no flavor, and eating became a chore. It was as if her brain shut off the oral pleasure and she lost a lot of weight. What was going on with her system?
With these four instances, and some other sensations rattling around the brain, it is time to dive into the nose (and mouth) of our bodies to see what might be going on. Why do smells have such primal power? Are we genetically predisposed to smells? Does hypersensitivity to smells help our species? What if our smells are dulled, is that a problem to our health? Time to seek some answers by looking more broadly at our senses.
One reunion at Yale, my wife and I attended a lecture offered by a Professor Linda Bartoshuk. A renowned expert in Psychology and Otolaryngology, Dr. Bartoshuk had us put a piece of paper in our mouths and have the person sitting next to us examine our tongues. It turned out that about one quarter of the people in the room had an extraordinary number of blue dots on their tongues. Neither my wife nor I had such a lingual gift; but the 25% who did may have both a blessing and a curse. It turns out that a person with an extraordinary number of taste receptors, or taste buds, “live in a ‘neon world’ of taste, while nontasters live in a ‘pastel world'” explained Bartoshuk. The tricky part comes in the interpretation of NEON.
Dr. Linda Bartoshuk
According to Bartoshuk, the supertasters have a cluster of pain receptors on each bud, such that they feel physical pain when their tongues taste fat. These tongue sensitive clients claim that it feels like the burning of ethanol or capsaicin (cayenne pepper) on the tongue. Scientists feel that supertasters were the norm in the original homo sapiens, and that nontasters are a later derivation to our species. Fat is certainly a risk factor in our diets these days. As a result the supertasters are thinner than the nontasters.
It turns out that supertasters find other tastes too strong. Fruits and some vegetables, for example, seem to taste very bitter. The flavonoids in fruits and vegetables seem to make their tongues hurt, so that they would rather avoid many of these food types. As a result of their dietary preferences, they are susceptible to colon cancer, which is prevented in patients with high flavonoids in their diets. The supertasters also eat less sugar, which helps them tend to be thinner with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. They also feel more sensitive to the oral burn of smoke and alcohol, so tend to have lower occurrences of alcohol and smoking addictions.
The Tongue or The Nose
A wine connoisseur friend of ours, Brian Shuttleworth, grew up with the steel mills spewing ash in the streets of Pittsburgh. As a young man he moved to the Pacific Northwest and soon discovered that he had an extraordinary pallet. In one blind folded wine tasting exercise he was asked to identify five glasses of wine by region and vintner. He got four of the five exactly correct. The fifth, however, he was way off. Sure he was not that far off, Brian asked for some additional information. Upon further inquiry into the wine he had missed, the judges research revealed that the oak barrels that had been used in the aging of the wine were from the exact winery that our friend Brian had identified. That is what I call a supersmeller!
One of my sisters is a supersmeller who fell in love with the product Fabreze. She claimed that the odorless version of the spray could hide most of the noxious fumes she smelled all over her house. Being a rather odor filled boy, I was always out of step with my sister’s sensitive nose. I was careful to be bathed and scentless in her presence. No AXE for me!
A young woman in Florida was hired by a French fragrance company as a Nose. Her job was to walk around the gardens and find the fragrances which were the most pleasing to her. Then she was to go into the lab and work with chemists to find the chemical combinations which most closely replicated those smells. Pretty cool day job, if you have the nostrils for it.
A neighbor of ours in Portland, a few years back, was Gabrielle Glaser. Growing up in Oregon, she was not aware of her Jewish roots. When she discovered her heritage, she became intrigued by the “family nose.” The book she wrote, called The Nose, is a marvelous history of scents and sense throughout the generations.
There is nothing like the smell of willows in the spring, which capture the radiance and the freshness of the Pacific Northwest. Not to be outdone, apples blossom and azaleas bloom with such happy scents that our noses tilt up with joy. In my youth, my mom would talk about her favorite scents: coffee (up to the flowers on her cup), honey suckle, lilac and lily of valley. A tough list to contend with coming from a woman who went through chemotherapy three times. When I smell these fragrances, I am reminded of her keen sensibilities.
There are supersmellers just as there are supertasters and although the test for the nose bud receptors is harder to see than when looking at someone’s tongue, if the research were to be completed, I hypothesize some large overlaps in findings. The supersmellers probably have sensitivities that were genetically superior and helped warn them of danger. For example, if you could pick up the smell of a night-time fire with a few atoms of carbon floating in the air, and your family were sleeping on the savanna, then the ability to flee would give you a keen advantage in survival. If your nose could pick up the smell of dangerous chemicals in a good looking food substance, then you could avoid the sickness and damage done from ingesting the substance. The hypothesis is that hypersensitivity has long had its place in human society. It was once a key ingredient to success and survival.
In today’s world there are fewer of the supersmellers. It may be in the same 25% that the supertasters are in the population as a whole. That said, even if it means that we have to use hepa-filters in our vacuum cleaners, we should cherish the supersmellers rather than complain about them.
Betting that this IS an area of research that must be pretty far along, it just has not come to the attention of readers, like me.