Understanding Smell and How It Affects You | Whole Home Scenting

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How Smell Works: An Introduction to the Olfactory System


Have you ever experienced an aroma that takes you back to a significant moment in your life? Our sense of smell is incredibly powerful, yet few individuals know how smell works or why it is so powerful and evocative.

Learn more about your olfactory system and some of the unique aspects of your sense of smell. Appreciate your nose, and treat it to some unforgettable aromas in your home. Discover how you can harness the power of fragrances and treat yourself to pleasant memories, improved productivity and calming scents throughout your day.

How Does Smell Work

Our nose is part of a system called the olfactory system. This system plays an important role in your body and allows you to experience not only smells but also flavors. Before exploring the olfactory system and how it works, here are the two basic ways that we detect odors.

First, air passes through the front of your nose as you breathe. This type of smelling is called orthonasal olfaction, which essentially means smelling through your nose. Molecules pass through your nose, dissolve and are translated into a distinct smell.

The second way we experience odors is indirectly through our mouths. As you chew food, a process called retronasal olfaction causes molecules to enter the back of your nose through your mouth. This creates a strong link between the flavor and the smell of food. If you have an issue with your olfactory system, it can seriously affect your ability to taste unique flavors. Researchers say that up to 80% of your sense of taste comes from your olfactory system.

Your sense of smell actually grows stronger when you’re hungry. You also typically have a stronger sense of smell in the morning compared to the evening. Other interesting factors can affect how you smell, like your genes, skin type, diet, and even the weather.

The Basics of the Olfactory System

Olfactory system woman smelling pink rose

Explore the science of what makes our nose such a powerful, convenient part of our body—the science of smell. Your entire olfactory system is connected to your brain in unique ways, making it a more powerful and memorable sense in some interesting ways. First, here is a guide to the major parts of your olfactory system.

When you breathe in through your nose, odor molecules are drawn into your nose and past the top of your nose, called the olfactory cleft. Bony cushions in your nose, called turbinates, help bring in air and odor molecules. Turbinates also direct, filter, humidify and warm-up air as it enters your nose. Once in your nose, molecules dissolve on the olfactory epithelium, which is a layer of mucus in your nose. There are millions of sensory neurons in this thin strip of tissue, and they assist in translating odor molecules into distinct smells.

Dissolved odor molecules are quickly spread throughout your nose with the help of special proteins. These proteins guide dissolved molecules to cilia, which are hair-like structures in your nose and are attached to receptor cells. Humans have about 450 of these olfactory receptors. Dogs have at least twice as many, which is why their sense of smell is so powerful. There are several different types of sense receptors, and each one activates different odor molecules.

Depending on how strong a bond is formed between the dissolved odor molecule and a particular sense receptor, that receptor sends a slightly different signal. Each individual smell we encounter is actually a combination of many odor molecules.

Once molecules bind to your olfactory receptors, these receptors send a signal through your axons. Axons are tiny nerve fibers that connect your brain and your olfactory receptors. They pass through the cribriform plate, which is the layer of bone at the base of your skull. Your body has bundles of thousands of axons that act together to create olfactory nerves. Imagine an olfactory nerve like a rope or electric cable that’s made up of hundreds of individual strands.

Once inside your skull, axons connect to the olfactory bulb. This structure is at the base of the forebrain and is connected to many areas throughout your brain. It works to process scents and relays the information to some key areas of your brain. Here are some of the more important parts of your brain connected to your olfactory bulb:

  1. Thalamus
  2. Piriform cortex
  3. Orbitofrontal neocortex
  4. Limbic system

The thalamus is a relay station for all your senses. The signals from your olfactory bulb work with other senses, like your sense of smell, and transmit this collected information to your orbitofrontal cortex. This is why your senses of taste and smell are linked so strongly.

Other areas of your brain that the thalamus sends signals include your hippocampus and amygdala. These areas are strongly involved in memory and learning processes. This link is a key part of the explanation of smell and memory. A smell that takes you back to your childhood reminds you of a friend or causes you to feel intense emotions is due to this link. The limbic system is also connected to this process.

Why Are Smells Good or Bad?

Stinky house why smells are good or bad

What is the best smell in the world? How about the worst smell? Surprisingly, people can’t seem to agree with these basic categories. Many smells that some individuals call pleasant are unbearable for others. Because your olfactory system is strongly connected to your hippocampus and amygdala, memories and emotions play a strong part in identifying and processing smells.

Scientists are still working to understand the exact molecular composition of smells. Exploring smells at the molecular level does not seem to yield any definitive cases of good or bad smells. Your feelings about an odor are largely influenced by your memory and how individual molecules bind in your olfactory system.

The most common theory of this is called pattern-activation. What this means is that the ways that particular molecules bind to your receptors can vary dramatically. The binding pattern alters the electrical activity in your olfactory bulb, which determines the exact smell and your feelings about it.

This becomes more complicated when you start to compare smells from one individual to another. Some people enjoy the smell of a skunk, for example, while others find roses and floral scents to be unpleasant. What causes these wide gaps in scent recognition and feelings? Scientists are still working to understand this unique phenomenon.

Why Are Smells So Powerful?

A Rockefeller University study discovered that individuals remember 5% of what they see, 2% of what they hear and an astonishing 35% of what they smell. Compared to every other sense, your sense of smell is an incredibly powerful system. Its strong link to memory can allow you to recall memories with surprising clarity instantly and vividly.

Individuals can distinguish and recall over 100,000 different odors. The use of pleasant aromas, scents and fragrances can be surprisingly beneficial. Here are just a few ways that fragrances can affect you in a powerful, beneficial way:

  1. Improved alertness
  2. Increased energy
  3. Reduced stress
  4. Increased relaxation
  5. Reduced pain and inflammation
  6. Reduced disease-causing microbes

Why is your sense of smell so powerful? Part of the reason is its strong connection with your memory processing systems. Unlike other senses, your sense of smell is so strongly connected to your amygdala and hippocampus that you typically have strong, distinct emotional responses to smell.

It is important to harness the powers of your sense of smell. Even though you may not realize it, your sense of smell plays a huge role in how you taste food, how you feel and how memories are formed. Do you enjoy the scent of your home, car or office? Consider these important spaces where you spend much of your day.

Consider harnessing the power of smell and looking for ways to alter the scent of your environment to improve your alertness, energy, and relaxation.

What Happens When You Can’t Smell

Anosmia is a serious issue that can affect individuals (not to be confused with nose blindness). Losing the ability to smell may seem like a minor issue, but it can have far-reaching consequences. A recent survey of 7,000 young people around the world found that around half of individuals aged 16 to 30 would rather give up their sense of smell than technology. Is your smartphone or laptop more important than your olfactory system?

Individuals with anosmia report feeling isolated from their surroundings. Unlike losing another scent, it is difficult to tell if an individual has lost their sense of smell. However, these individuals often experience blunted emotions, little or no sense of taste and difficulty maintaining close relationships.

Not only is anosmia a serious issue on its own, but it’s also an early sign of diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinson’s. Losing your sense of smell can occur before struggling with memory issues or motor skills.

Choosing Scents

White daisy

Because of the subjectivity of our sense of smell, companies can have a difficult time finding the perfect fragrance for a range of products. Food, perfume, and cleaning supplies all rely on a pleasant, memorable odor to encourage customers to use them.

Businesses use professionals called “noses” to assist them in creating a fragrance. These professional smellers are trained to assess minute differences in odors. While they can’t arrive at a universally pleasant smell, they understand scents that are typically pleasant in their culture. Your sense of smell is personal, but it is closely related to individuals in your culture compared to other cultures.

Instead of relying on this imprecise model, some researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have been working on a model of identifying and naming scents. In a surprising experiment, they were able to identify and order scents with 30% accuracy. This is far from a perfect system but is more accurate than other scientific methods of organizing odors.

In the meantime, there are some general agreements on scents. While everyone has experienced scents in a unique way, most individuals can agree on some basic scent categories. For example, most individuals find the smell of citrus refreshing and the smell of rotting wood unpleasant.

Check out our guide on choosing the right fragrance for every room.

Embrace Pleasing Aromas in Your Home

Now that you know the basics of your olfactory system and why your sense of smell is so important, learn how to harness this knowledge and improve your workflow, your daily life and your positive memories of your home and workplace.

At Whole Home Scenting, we work with a range of natural, pleasing scents and innovative odor elimination products to restore a sense of peace, calm and productivity to your environment. Whether you are dealing with unpleasant odors every day or looking for a way to boost your pleasant memories of your home, learn more about our variety of scents and aromatherapy products.

Pleasant scents are not universal. Because no two individuals experience aromas in the same way, it is important to personalize your home’s scent to your particular needs. Choose a scent diffuser that offers a range of unique scents. Here are just a few common options you can choose from when you select fragrances from Whole Home Scenting:

  1. Apple Crate
  2. Cactus Blossom
  3. Lavender Vanilla
  4. Simply Citrus
  5. Lemongrass

These scents blend a range of essential oils and fragrance oils to promote safe, pleasant fragrances that are not full of unhealthy ingredients. Many fragrance systems mask odors and alter the scent of your home at the cost of your health. Do not let harmful chemicals enter your nose and absorb in the mucus layer of your olfactory epithelium, but instead enjoy natural ingredients and safe molecules. Sample a few to find the most pleasing combination to activate your odor receptors and evoke powerful memories and feelings.

These fragrances can not only remove unpleasant odors, but they can evoke powerful memories. Bring back the aroma and memories of your beachside vacation, or enjoy a breath of fresh country air in your apartment with the perfect blend of essential oils and fragrance oils.

Shop for fragrances today at Whole Home Scenting to discover the best scent combination for your home. Explore our best whole house air freshener models, and find out how you can enjoy a diverse range of fragrances and pleasing aromas wherever you go. Treat your olfactory system to a refreshing blend of aromas and memories today.

Photo credit: Nicholas Githiri (woman smelling pink flower), Živa Trajbarič (woman smelling pink rose), Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush (White daisys)
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