Scents and Sensibility

| October/November 2004

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”

—Helen Keller

The sense of smell is both primitive and powerful. Our ability to smell is estimated to be 10,000 times more sensitive than taste, and we can detect a scent at extremely low concentrations — a mere hint of a whiff is enough to catch our attention. A scent travels chemical pathways to a section of the brain called the limbic system, which is connected to memory and emotion.

Whenever we inhale, scented molecules come drifting into our noses. High in the nasal cavity they meet olfactory receptors, which are long, thin cells that line the inner nose. These cells have delicate hairs with nerve endings and are connected by nerve fibers to the smell center, or olfactory bulb, in the brain. Every breath we take passes over these olfactory receptors, and when we breathe deeply, they surge into action, firing off messages. Unlike other sense organs, the nose sends its information directly to the brain.

Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses (Vintage Books, 1990), describes the limbic system as “a mysterious, ancient and intensely emotional section of our brain in which we feel, lust and invent.”

Some fragrances cause the limbic system to gear up the glands to stimulate hormone production, which controls sex and appetite as well as other bodily activities. Among insects and animals throughout nature, scenting ability conveys basic information related to survival in a primitive world — such as recognizing friend from foe and signaling sexual readiness.

And among garden plants, fragrance plays its role in the biological dance, attracting pollinators, repelling predators and advertising for the flower its fertility, availability and the certain lure of nectar within. Scent seems intertwined with basic urges and biological evolution throughout the natural world. Though a happy coincidence, the enjoyment we humans gain from the fragrance of an herb garden on a warm afternoon is irrelevant to the flowers.

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