A Potent Wizard
Think of your favorite scent: say, freshly ground coffee, cookies baking, evergreen trees in the mountains, or roses from the garden. Now try to describe that smell. Nearly impossible, isn’t it? As tough as they are to capture in words, odors are indelibly linked with memories, like the familiar combination of coconut tanning lotion and slightly mildewed life jackets that brings back childhood summers at the lake. As Helen Keller said, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across a thousand miles and all the years we have lived.”
Smell is so mysterious that its mechanisms baffled scientists for decades. Then, after 15 years of intensive research, two American scientists made a stunning discovery that won them the 2004 Nobel Prize in medicine. Richard Axel of Columbia University in New York City and Linda Buck of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found the roughly 1,000 genes responsible for our ability to recognize and remember some 10,000 different odors. Their breakthrough studies help us understand the complex process that enables us to tell the difference between the sweet scent of a hyacinth, the tang of garlic, the harsh sting of ammonia and the clean, citrusy spritz of lemon.
Smells can lift our spirits, calm us, make us feel sexy — and maybe even help us lose weight. Some odors can repulse us, too, and for good reason: They can tell us that gas is leaking, the milk is sour or the meat is spoiled. They can even be lifesaving: We can smell smoke way before seeing fire.
Our sense of smell is incredibly complex, yet often undervalued (we treasure sight and hearing much more). It is also our most primitive sense, and the one we employ immediately (an hour after birth, newborns can recognize their mothers’ nipples by smell).