The olfactory sense at work

The olfactory sense at work

Our sense of smell works in wondrous ways since the chemical composition of our surrounding change instantly and constantly. Our noses pick up volatile airborne compounds that interact with our olfactory receptors.

The information that we get from our surroundings pass through our noses and then to the core cortex in the brain. We, humans have about 400 types of olfactory receptors which is used to identify many different types of chemicals that have varying odor quality.

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Contributors to the study of the olfactory sense
  • Santiago Ramón y Cajal: A founding father of neuroscience, he drew attention to the sense of smell as an exemplary model to learn how the brain makes sense of the world. He also believed that understanding smell would grant us better insight into other sensory systems
  • Linda Buck & Richard Axel: They discovered the olfactory receptors which happened to be the most structurally diverse and sizable member of the largest multi-gene family of protein receptors. They received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  • It is different from other sensory cortices in a way that it has a multidimensional stimulus.
  • Some things can smell different not just between different people but also for the same person.
  • Can measure an array of an uncertain variety of chemicals that can trace changes that detects pleasure, pain, or danger.
  • It does not require a map mirroring because its chemical stimulus is constantly changing. It relies on the brain to recognize the pattern or memory associated with the smell.

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Our Sense Of Smell And Our Memories

Certain smells that are associated in our minds to events or locations from the past, trigger our memories to revisit them. This association of the past through the sense of smell works better and is more vivid than the sense of touch or sight.

Example: Smelling the pages of a new book may remind us of late-night reading as a kid.

Neurons have multiple tasks

It is a myth that specific parts of the human brain have specific psychological jobs. The myth claims that the brain has separate parts, each with a dedicated mental function - one part for vision, another for memory, etc.

Today, we know the brain is a massive network of neurons with multiple jobs, not a single psychological purpose. Not all neurons can do everything, but most neurons do more than one thing.

How smell works
  • Odour molecules that move through the air up your nostrils will bind to special smell receptors on the surface of nerve cells.
  • The nerve cells send a signal to the brain's olfactory bulb, that is behind the bridge of the nose.
  • People have about 400 different smell receptor types.
  • The odour molecules create a pattern of activation in the nerve cells that the brain translates as a smell.

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