Brainwaves, Issue 4, Smell

By | April 29, 2012

Ahhh…the awakening smell of a fresh summer rain…the comforting smell of freshly baked bread…the alluring smell of the morning cup of coffee … the alarming smell of smoke…

Our sense of smell is the only sensory system that is directly connected to our limbic system (our emotional brain), including direct pathways to the hippocampus (memory storage).  That connection makes it part of our “primitive” brain which operates more instinctually…like our animal friends!

Brainwaves is a monthly newsletter designed to create some “brainwaves” within my community of colleagues, friends and clients.

In the last issue, I wrote about sound defensiveness and the four kinds of sound sensitivities.  This issue focuses on smell hyper-sensitivity and an interview with a friend of mine; an adult male with self-proclaimed super smelling abilities!!

Here are some interesting facts on smell from “The Smell Report”

  • Human smell occurs high up in the nasal passage by two small patches of cells each made up of about 5 to 6 million cells; a bloodhound has about 230 million.
  • The human nose is humans’ main organ of taste as well as smell. The taste-buds on our tongues can only distinguish four qualities – sweet, sour, bitter and salt – all other ‘tastes’ are detected by the olfactory receptors.
  • Many odors trigger not only the olfactory system but also the ‘somatosensory’ system (the nerve endings in our noses which are sensitive to temperature, pain etc.)   Anosmics (people who have completely lost their sense of smell) can still detect menthol and many other substances. In a study testing anosmics’ ability to perceive odors, it was found that many so-called odors affect the pain and temperature-sensitive nerve-endings. Out of 47 odors, anosmics could detect 45. (Only two substances could not be detected by the anosmic patients: these were decanoic acid and vanillin, which affect only the olfactory receptors, and can categorized as ‘pure’ odors.)   The moral of this story…some unpleasant ‘smells’ do more than just annoy or disgust us, they actually cause us pain.


Interesting information from my friend, Rob…

1)      At what age did you first realize that you could smell things that other people could not?

Probably around 10 years old when I realized I could smell things like gas or smoke before anyone else in a group could.


2)      In retrospect, you wonder if you might have had ADD as a child.  How much do you think related to your hyper-sensitive smell?

That is a tough question… I really have no idea if there was any relationship but I suppose it could have caused more distraction leading to more inattentive behavior?


3)      Just how sensitive is your sense of smell?

There are times that perfumes, colognes, or other strong odours can be picked up by fresh air intake systems and pulled into houses or buildings. For example: A woman with perfume walks up my driveway and the furnace is running in the house at the same time. The fresh air system pulls the odour into the house and moves it through with the forced air system.  Chances are pretty good that I will smell that person before they ring m y doorbell!  Other times as people enter doors, the air or wind that moves with or around them will carry their odours to me from a fair distance.

I have noticed that there are several odours that I am super hyper sensitive to, particularly skunk, burning wood, gasoline, perfume/colognes, solvents and paints to name a few.   For example: Driving in a car on the highway I’ll smell skunk. No one else will. Maybe 1 minute later there will be a dead skunk on the road and once we drive past then everyone else in the car will smell it!   By this time,  I’m already smelling the wood stove from the farmer 5 miles down the road!

4)      Brain research states that our sense of smell is the only sensory system that connects directly to our emotional brain.  Do you have strong emotional reactions to smells?  Do you find that you have an initial emotional response to people based on how they smell?

I do have strong emotional reactions to smell as well as physical reactions, especially perfumes. Extremely strong perfumes or colognes can and have made me very angry as I know that they will, more often than not, lead to headaches or even nausea. In response to part two of the question, I have learned with age, to compose my initial response toward a person’s body odours and will attempt to distance myself from them if I find their odours to be offensive.


5)      Part of that connection to our emotional brain is also a direct connection to the part of our brain that stores memories.  Do you remember situations based on smells?

Yes, I do recall certain situations based on smell. Good and bad smells!


6)      They say that the human nose is also the main organ of taste.  Do you think your sense of taste is also hyper-sensitive?

I know there are times that I can find very small hints of flavours in foods that some others cannot distinguish and by checking ingredients I am generally correct that they are present!


7)      As an adult, how does your hyper-sensitive smell affect your life?  Is it a help or a hinder?

I believe that as I age I am probably losing some of my sense of smell.  I don’t believe it is either a help nor a hindrance although it may help to enhance quality wines and spirits.


8)      What advice would you give parents who have a child with hyper-sensitive smell?

That it may be associated with ADD and it may be a distraction to children that have not learned how to manage or cope with “Their special gift”!


So Now What?

In speaking with Carla of Zensations Sensory Solutions (email: [email protected]), we came up with a few possible solutions:

  • A scent inhaler to use with your favorite essential oil that can be tailored to a scent that the person likes (some retailers of essential oils will have this).  It can also be found at
  • A small vial on a necklace again where you would add an oil.
  • A lavender bear, something like those flax bags, but with lavender scent in it.