September 28, 2021

Decoding the sense of smell

Learn how sense of smell science and novel technologies create fragrances that improve well-being

What happens in our brain as we smell? The sense of smell—just like the sense of taste—decodes the molecules that we encounter. As we inhale a fragrance, the stream of aroma-molecules interacts with specialized olfactory receptor cells that convert the chemical information into electrical information for the brain to process. The job of olfactory receptor cells that are located on the hair-like cilia in the upper cavity of each nostril is to recognize aroma-molecules.

The incredible and indispensable sense

The importance of the sense of smell is attested by the fact that humans possess approximately 400 odour receptors, quite a large number. Although in comparison to other mammals, our nose is a much blunter instrument, it is nevertheless incredible in its ability to parse out thousands of scents. Even modern technology can’t approximate the sensitivity of a human nose.

The olfactory receptors attribute a unique code to almost every volatile odorant. As they convert the chemical information received into an electrical signal, it is sent to the brain in the form of an olfactory code. This code travels along axons of sensory cells to reach into the olfactory bulb lying against the underside of the brain’s frontal lobe. Here is where the fascinating things happen. The olfactory bulb maps out the odorant’s chemical identity, and the olfactory code continues on to the primary olfactory cortex of the brain and then areas of the secondary cortex, which includes the amygdala, hippocampus and thalamus.

Scents evoke a strong emotional response

This area of the brain is responsible for processing cognitive and emotional responses. It means that not only do we form an opinion about the odour, such as naming it, liking or disliking it, and remembering it, but also that our olfactory response merges with other senses. As a result, scents evoke strong emotional responses, making us feel uplifted and happy when we encounter a favourite fragrance. In same vein, flashbacks to the past generated by the sense of smell can likewise be profound and intense.

You can learn more about the fascinating connection between scents and emotions by reading How fragrances touch our emotions.

Novel fragrance technologies improve well-being

The sense of smell science paired with the cutting-edge technologies can be used not only to create beautiful fragrances, but also to suppress unpleasant odours. Did you know that certain odorant molecules prevent receptors from responding? It means that a carefully chosen palette of ingredients can silence the receptors that encode bad smells—and block us from perceiving them.

Let's create scents that boost positive emotions

The way we perceive scents and how we respond to them makes perfumery an intricate craft. Understanding the sense of smell is important for a perfumer, since every composition, be a fine fragrance, home spray or a body lotion, is a chance to give others a boost of positive emotions.

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