Our senses are the gateway to the world. We perceive the world around us not only with our eyes, ears and mouth, but also, and to a large extent, with our nose. Millions of olfactory cells mean we can detect even the tiniest molecules, which our other senses are unable to determine. And yet, for a long time, the human sense of smell was underestimated. It was only a study by the Rockefeller University that revealed that our nose can distinguish a billion different scents, and not only 10,000 as previously assumed. But if we want to describe them, words often fail us. The human vocabulary simply is not big enough to cover a billion scents. Instead, we draw on personal memories and associations. When trying to describe the scent of an orange, for example, we could use definitions like “fruity”, “citrusy” or “fresh”. These do indeed provide a general idea, but if we want to be really precise we’d have to resort to “it smells of orange”. On the other hand, if we’re reminded of a well-laid breakfast table with freshly squeezed juice or are nostalgic about our last holiday in Spain, a comparison with personal experiences makes it a lot more tangible.
Why is that? The olfactory cells are much more closely connected to the memory centre than to the speech centre. Before scents are stored and consciously perceived in the cerebrum, they pass through the limbic system, the emotional centre of our brain. This is why memories triggered by a scent are also always linked to an emotion and to a particular situation.