Your Nose Can Learn

There’s good news for would-be wine aficionados from Northwestern University researchers. As described in the ambigously titled, Want to Smell Better? Practice! (But try not to break a sweat? ;)), a study found that exposing a subject to one smell for a period of time allowed the subject to differentiate among similar smells.

Now researchers in the lab of neurologist Jay Gottfried, MD, find that after smelling a floral scent for a few minutes, a person gains new ability to sense different floral scents.

“When you have prolonged sensory experience with one smell, you become an expert for smells that are part of that original category,” Gottfried says in a news release…

…Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers found that this passive learning changed the way the scent centers of the brain responded to smells.

The conclusion: “Information about an odor is not static or fixed within these [brain] regions, but is highly malleable and can be rapidly updated” by smelling experience, says study researcher Wen Li.

This work, originally described in Neuron, is exciting for those who enjoy wine but have difficulty sorting out the aroma notes, or finding any aroma notes at all. The key takeaway from this work is that time is a key element in improving the ability to discriminate among similar scents. The subjects in the test improved their abilities only after a few minutes of exposure to the initial odor. So, don’t just take a quick sniff… to train your nose, keep it in the glass for three or four minutes. We suggest you do your initial experimenting in the privacy of your home and not at fine restaurants to avoid worrying your fellow diners.

Though I spend a fair amount of my time with my nose in a wine glass, I don’t think I’ve ever kept it there for three minutes. I’ve always been concerned about the opposite issue, a sort of nose fatigue that seems to deaden your ability to smell for a bit. I’ll try this and report on my results. If you try it, post a comment to let us know how it worked out.

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