What does the nose know? New research behind your sense of smell and the brain.

Assumption College Undergraduate

psychology of smellWhat do freshly mowed grass, garlic mashed potatoes, dad’s aftershave, and cinnamon spice have in common? Many might call out their conspicuous smells.

The smell of a strong scent can trigger a whole lot of memories, but very often we’re at a loss for words when it comes to explaining to others what we smell. The smell after a spring rain might remind you of a number of memories, but trying to describe it to someone who has never smelled ‘spring rain’ is almost impossible.

Olfaction and the study of the olfactory system relates to the sense of smell. In the last year, new research in the subject of the olfactory system has been conducted all over the world. With new research findings on the human ability to distinguish roughly 1 trillion different smell combinations (other research says 10,000), psychologists want to explain the reason language is so lacking to describe any of them.

When experiencing the other four senses – taste, sight, touch and hearing – one can beautifully describe scenes, sounds and sensations – words like bristly, fuzzy; piercing, serene; bitter, tangy, spicy; twinkling, radiant, homely. On the contrary, when it comes to smell, we have few words to describe it, at least without describing the source of the odor (flowery), using a word that literally only means “having a smell” (odorous) or just simply labeling it “bad” or “good” (smelly, fragrant).

Assumption College psychology students have opportunities to study the psychology of the senses as they work towards their bachelor’s degrees. In Psychology 350 Perception, students gain an appreciation of our sensory systems as well as explore sensory disorders and deficits such as hearing loss, loss of proprioception, phantom limbs, and visual agnosia. Psychology students interested in the olfactory system have the opportunity to engage in their own customized research and present it at the Undergraduate Research Symposium on campus.

A study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that people were “slower and less precise when linking a word to its corresponding odor than to its picture.” The study had volunteers identify common odors, while they were monitored by EEG electrodes and fMRI scans.  “Their findings point to two brain regions that seem to be preferentially activated during odor naming: the anterior temporal cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex,” Wired magazine says.

Research published in Cognition found that some languages are better at describing smell than English and other similar western languages. Psychologist Asifa Majid, of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands researched the Maniq language, spoken by a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers in southern Thailand. The research found that Maniq speakers, along with other small cultures they researched, were able to quickly and consistently name and describe the odors, while English speakers struggled.

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