As flavor and fragrance guru John C. Leffingwell, Ph.D puts it:
In humans, the olfactory receptors are located deep within the nasal cavity, as part of the yellow-colored olfactory membrane, and occupy an area of around 0.39 square inches (2.5 square cm). Compare this to 1 full square yard (0.8 square meters) in a German Shepherd dog. That's well over 3000 times as much area! Plus, our canine friends also have 44 times as many receptor cells as we do, and devote much more of their brain to processing these signals.
For those who like SAT-style analogies, a dog's sense of smell is to ours, as our sense of reason is to theirs. Even so, based on the Nobel prize winning work of Richard Axel and Linda Buck, 1,000 genes—three percent of the human genome—code for olfactory receptor types.
Back in 1952, British biochemist John E. Amoore suggested that there are seven fundamental scents in play, although some researchers now believe that there are many more. These basic seven are:
Many theories have been proffered as to how odors are interpreted. Leffingwell summarizes our current understanding of the matter, referring to it as a "combinatorial approach," much like how four nucleotides (adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine) allow the creation of a nearly infinite number of genetic combinatorial sequences.
Perhaps the most prevalent cinematic cliché involving olfaction portrays a recently widowed spouse smelling a garment worn by their departed loved one. As we have all experienced, scent is remarkably effective in conjuring up memories—usually emotional ones, including those long past. This phenomenon is known as involuntary memory, and is popularly called the Proust Effect, based on his novel In Search of Lost Time.
The most celebrated example of involuntary memory in that work is the "episode of the madeleine."
A common, although not well-proven explanation for this phenomenon is that the olfactory system is located very close to the brain's centers of emotion (the amygdala) and memory (the hippocampus).
The practice of aromatherapy utilizes essential oils to promote physical, emotional, and spiritual health and balance. Various substances are specifically identified with physiological responses (e.g., eucalyptus relieves congestion, lavender promotes relaxation). While there are few rigorous studies confirming these effects, any contemporary practice that goes back thousands of years likely contains some merit.
But not all odors are pleasant. In fact, the control of unwanted odors is a serious concern of modern society.
A relatively new player in this space is OdorNo, an Ohio-based manufacturer of biodegradable odor barrier plastic bags. [http://www.odorno.com] The company's inaugural products have been created to contain the odor of diapers, incontinence products, and pet waste. Last month, I spoke with Garett Fortune, the firm's CEO.
OdorNo's motto is "Why smell it?" and its line of bags was developed in response to Garett's extreme sensitivity to foul odors. He claims that the bags work so well that even dogs can't smell material sealed inside them. While the bags provide a formidable barrier to odor, they are biodegradable, owing to a proprietary additive used in manufacturing. And yes, the bags are all manufactured in Ohio.
The products are currently available via the company's website, with plans in place to roll out both medical and retail distribution.
Michael D. Shaw
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