Ten Minutes with Rachel Herz: On Smell
A neuroscientist discusses how smell influences everything from emotions and relationships to identity and wellbeing.
Jan 17, 2024
To hear more about what makes smell the most unique of our five senses, click on the SoundCloud audio below.
See below for a transcript of the SoundCloud audio.
Dr. Rachel Herz, neuroscientist: Scent is at the lowest rank for our senses in terms of just general public opinion. I mean, we recently did a study showing how, relative to other senses, smell is valued the least. Even to the point where 25 percent of college students would rather give up their sense of smell than their cell phone [laughs], which is this sort of startling headline.
But I think that the sense of smell is the most important sensation because it literally filters through all aspects of our existence. It influences everything in our lives, from our mental and emotional states to our physical health to our interpersonal relationships to our cognitive capabilities to our sense of self. And it also shapes all of our external world in terms of how we perceive the environment.
My name is Rachel Herz. I’m a neuroscientist whose specialty of expertise is the science of smell.
So we have this sort of central part of our brain, the olfactory bulb, which is where this is taking place, and then you have the amygdala hippocampal complex, which is part of the limbic system. This is where the conscious perception of scent takes place, and it is where also the perception of emotion and memory and associations is taking place.
No other sensory system has this direct and actually co-opted neuroanatomy, where both a sensation is being produced and consciously experienced and our abilities to experience emotion, memory, and so forth is also happening in the exact same place.
This gives our experience of scent very nuanced, emotional, memorial, associative qualities to it.
I will give you a personal example and that is that I really like the scent of skunk, even though culturally in North America it is considered an unpleasant smell. And the reasons for my personal positive association have to do with the first time I ever smelled skunk.
I was probably five years old, I’m not sure, in the backseat of my parents car. A beautiful summer day, windows rolled down, and my mum, from the front seat says, “Oh, I love that smell!” as whatever scent is wafting through the windows. Mommy said, “I love that smell.” I love mommy. Beautiful moment. “I love that smell!”
And it wasn’t until a few years later that I was on the playground somewhere and there had been a skunk somewhere in the vicinity recently, and I said, “Oh, I love that smell!” And then the rest of the kids went, “Ew, gross. You’re so weird. That’s skunk.” Then I realized I should keep it to myself.
For example, the taste of a sweet candy is actually perceived as sweeter when we can also smell that it’s caramel or chocolate, than if we just tasted the candy without the scent. They not only fuse together, they actually synergize each other.
When people lose their sense of smell, it is really traumatizing because their experience of food becomes neutered to the most simple of these basic sensations and they can’t get what they are searching for.
That’s actually a very special tool that scent gives us, being able to change our mental state, calm us, focus us, center us, and so forth, just because we paid attention to it.
Dr. Rachel Herz is an expert on the psychological science of smell. As a neuroscientist, she has studied and lectured extensively, including as a TEDx speaker in 2024 and TED in 2019. Herz has published over 100 original research articles and written three acclaimed popular-science books to date. She is also actively involved in outreach, advocacy, and education on the senses of smell and flavor, works as a consultant to international corporations, and serves on the faculty at Brown University.
This episode was produced and edited by Arlette Hernandez, with mixing and sound design by Brandi Howell.
MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
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