How to improve your sense of smell—and why you’d want to

A technology reporter’s refreshing new book traces our deep-rooted olfactory inferiority complex


Smell is the first step in understanding a good wine. Photo: iStockphoto
Smell is the first step in understanding a good wine. Photo: iStockphoto

Superman could fly. The Incredible Hulk had incredible strength. Even Deadpool had healing powers. Among superheroes, it isn’t that sexy to have one of your regular five senses heightened, much less become a mutant with a super sniffer.

Bianca Bosker, New York-based technology reporter and author of the new book Cork Dork, acknowledges that our noses occupy a lower tier among the senses. Even the phrase “that smells” reeks of ammonia. “We have a real bias about smell,” says Bosker. “Most of us have learnt at an early age that this is a sense that it does not pay to cultivate.” Best-case scenario: You end up a sommelier.

Over the course of 18 months, Bosker spent a year with some of the top oenophiles in the world to try to understand what the big deal about wine is.

She met scent scientists to see if there was a short cut to becoming a wine connoisseur. “I started out wondering if we can even hone our sense of smell,” she says. In other words, are we born confined to a certain amount of sensitivity, or can we get better if we really try?

Bosker traces our olfactory inferiority complex back to the days of Aristotle, who prophesied that “man can smell things only poorly…because his sense-organ is not accurate”. In the 19th century, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution seemed to prove that humans had evolved beyond the need to know their noses. The French scientist Paul Broca found that as animals ascended the evolutionary chain, their limbic lobe, a part of the brain then thought to control our sense of smell, decreased in size. It was so small in humans, he concluded, that “the delicacy of his olfactory sense is…of no utility in his life”. The famous tongue map—the idea that the front part of your tongue is sweet, and the back bitter—wasn’t disproved until 1974.

‘Cork Dork’, acknowledges that our noses occupy a lower tier among the senses.
‘Cork Dork’, acknowledges that our noses occupy a lower tier among the senses.

The scientists Bosker spoke to say the biggest problem is that most people don’t even know the difference between taste and smell.

“We assume that everything that happens in our mouth is taste, which is not true,” she explains. “We confuse one for the other, when we’d never confuse sight and sound.” One study she cites from the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Center found that most people failed to diagnose themselves properly. People who complained about losing their sense of taste were three times more likely to be suffering from a smell disorder. New research by the University of Dresden’s Smell and Taste Clinic found that the part of the brain responsible for processing smell can grow with exercise. Even those with just an average sense of smell can increase the size of their olfactory bulbs via a regimen of trying out four aromas, twice a day, for about 30 seconds each.

It’s a curious paradox: Enlightened humans today obsess over spending time and money to find food that tastes better, whether it’s organic blueberries or third-wave coffee, and yet, she continues: “We rarely train ourselves to taste well. We let price and labels and menu descriptions substitute for our own sensory experiences.”

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Steps to achieve an evolved nose

Establish your baseline

Even if you are doing this to better appreciate wine or food, sharpening your sense of smell doesn’t start at the table.

If you want to establish a base level of smell—your own scent-focused control group, in other words—smoking is out, for obvious reasons. Also banned: coffee, hard alcohol, hot sauce, perfume and cologne, overly strong shampoo, most salt, and toothpaste (right before a smelling exercise). Many sommeliers also refuse to drink anything at more than tepid temperatures.

Practise the art of description

One helpful exercise, Bianca Bosker says, is to try to describe all the smells over the course of your daily routine. This could involve coming up with tasting notes for the shampoo you use every morning and the toothpaste you use at night. Push yourself to go beyond obvious descriptors. So having the right words to describe what you’re tasting is essential to understanding it and in communicating to others.

Exercise your nose

The expensive short cut is a $400 (around Rs26,000) kit called Le Nez du Vin. It’s a collection of glass vials that contain liquid versions of the aroma of nearly 54 different scents.

“I would smell four vials of these samples every day,” Bosker says. At the end of the month, they were like smell flash cards.”

Apparently, it worked. When Bosker went in for her sommelier exam, she smelt the ripe raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, plum, blueberry and cassis, with a hint of pyrazines, to correctly deduce that it was a Cabernet Sauvignon from California, one-three years old. And by the end, when she replicated a French and Italian study that used an fMRI machine to compare the brains of expert wine drinkers with those of amateurs, her own scan lit up like that of a professional. Instead of just processing flavour in an emotional way, which is how the brain of an amateur does it, she was using parts of her brain reserved for high-functioning skills, including reason, memory and cognitive thinking.

Bosker also began picking up on information she had neglected before, “clues that add richness to daily life”. The only downside? In New York, she became aware of specific smells in subway stations. Now, she says, there are “clues that tell me where we are before we get there”. The Times Square stop, for example, has notes of grease, dirty diapers, and blue cheese. Bloomberg

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