The power of the nose
Have you ever smelt something that immediately took you back to your childhood, to a happy or difficult time in your life or to a certain place? Could you remember exactly how you felt or what you were thinking or doing when you last smelt it, even if it was a long time ago?
It's a common experience to associate an aroma with a memory, which can often arouse quite vivid feelings. The reason that our sense of smell is so powerful is that unlike other senses it does not have to pass through a brain structure known as the thalamus but is directly processed by the olfactory system in the brain. It is also part of the limbic system, which also plays a role in processing emotions and memories.
Compared to many animals, the human olfactory system takes up a relatively small part of the brain and our sense of smell is quite weak. However, the importance of human olfaction is demonstrated by studies that show we can us it among other things, to identify relatives, choose partners and determine age
A new study by Assistant Professor Johan Lundström, an experimental neuropsychologist at the Monell Chemical Sciences Centre in the United States, demonstrates how well we can use our sense of smell to determine age. And debunks the myth that old people smell bad!
Assistant Prof Lundström and colleagues had people from three age groups (20-30 years, 45-55 years and 75-95 years) sleep with pads located under their arms for 5 nights. The pads were then placed in jars and other participants were asked to group the jars according to age. Participants were able to easily group the armpit pads by age group and even by gender.
Surprisingly, despite the common conception that older people have an unpleasant odour, younger people rated the arm pads of the oldest age group as being fairly neutral and not unpleasant.
The group rated as most unpleasant was men aged 45-55 years.