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It’s an amazing thing, the sense of smell. Smell is linked to your brain by your nervous system. There are hundreds of thousands of tiny, little cells in your nose that are programmed to detect certain molecules. A molecule is a very, very, tiny structure that has a particular shape, and indeed every cell is made up of millions of molecules. So somehow, these specialised cells in your nose are able to detect the presence of these incredibly tiny molecules. This effectively means that a physical piece of whatever is causing the smell needs to be in the air in order for you to detect it! Not a nice thought when you consider some of the horrible things that we can smell!

When these molecules (which stimulate a particular smell), are detected in the nose, a signal is sent to the brain. The brain then interprets this signal as being a particular smell. What is fascinating is that this part of your brain is very strongly linked to your fight or flight system which helps you to survive in an emergency situation (see the previous post on 'Fight or flight?' for more detailed information). What is even more amazing, is that smell is the only sense that is not processed first by more complex parts of the brain. The signals shoot straight into the fight and flight centre.

Have you ever smelt a particular aroma, and asked yourself 'What is that smell?' Some smells can take you straight back in time, to a moment in your childhood. It is as if you were there in real time. That is how powerful the sense of smell can be in stimulating and recreating patterns from the past.

The way your brain is wired, the smell sensors are really a mechanism for detecting danger. The messages travel very quickly to a part of your brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for your fight or flight reaction (otherwise known as your survival system). You can see how this might be important if you were to smell fire or smoke, or even the fragrance of a dangerous animal. The amygdala is in a part of your brain that doesn’t think. It doesn’t analyse. It doesn’t reason. It just reacts. Here’s an example: you are walking along the road and you see a stick that looks like a snake. Your first reaction is to jump back (that’s your amygdala). Then your brain kicks in and you look more closely. You then register the fact that it is only a stick. Some people can have a very heightened sense of smell, and like with anything, you can actually train yourself to identify different fragrances. As with everything in the human body, the full mechanism of how it works is little understood. Did you know that women are born better smellers than men, and remain better smellers over their lifetime? Or that your sense of smell is around 10000 times more sensitive than your sense of taste?

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