A Celebration of Smell

noseThe March 13 Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City—suggestively titled “What Does Ecstasy Smell Like?”—brought on stage the Columbia University neurobiologist Stuart Firestein and the elite perfumier Christophe Laudamiel, each an expert on our wonderful sense of smell.  Although asnomia is nothing to sneeze at, blindness and deafness have inclined clinical medicine towards the eye and the ear. But the fact remains that they are just one-third of six holes-in-the-head from which our brain, in its dark, wet box, receives information about the outside world.

Dr. Firestein of Columbia University, where he offers a course titled “SCNC 3920: Ignorance,” leads a research laboratory that uses the vertebrate olfactory neuron, which has been shown to regenerate, as a model to explore important questions.  As it turns out, flavor is sensed through the nose, despite the fact that we insist that we feel its sensation on the tongue.  This confusion may be the result of the proximity of the two corresponding cortical regions—the olfactory sensory cortex and the taste sensory cortex.

Mr. Laudamiel, who has been called “the enfant terrible of contemporary perfumery,” demonstrated a keen knowledge of neuroscience and chemistry.  The Frenchman once explained a process involving neurons that ended in “Voila.”  He made a scent called “Human Existence” for the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.  Mr. Laudamiel also collaborated on a “scent opera” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2009.  I learned a lot about perfumery from hearing Mr. Laudamiel speak.  Watch out for the new scent from The Beautiful Brain: Homo sapiens.

There are a few scientific reasons why smell, controlled by the olfactory system, is unique.  There are 350 olfactory receptors in the back of the nasal cavity.   These receptors actually interact with matter from the outside world.  (“A rose by any other name would smell like molecules.”)  From these neurons, information travels through only two steps—synaptic sites—before arriving at the deepest parts of the brain, including the amygdala and the entorhinal cortex.

Interestingly, the popular myth of the “pheremonal sense,” known as the vomeronasal system, does not seem to be active in adult human beings.  Located near the sinus, the vomeronasal organ contains a few hundred pseudogenes, defunct relatives of genes that cannot make proteins and therefore cannot be expressed in the cell.

So, we know that Ecstasy does not smell like pheromones.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

View all posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *