A Report from Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
In The Remembrance of Things Past, French novelist Marcel Proust described what happened to him after drinking a spoonful of tea in which he had soaked a piece of madeleine, a type of cake: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me,” he wrote. “An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses…with no suggestion of its origin…
“Suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was of a little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings…my Aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea….Immediately the old gray house on the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and the entire town, with its people and houses, gardens, church, and surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being from my cup of tea.”
Just seeing the madeleine had not brought back these memories, Proust noted. He needed to taste and smell it. “When nothing else subsists from the past,” he wrote, “after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls…bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”
Proust referred to both taste and smell—and rightly so, because most of the flavor of food comes from its aroma, which wafts up the nostrils to cells in the nose and also reaches these cells through a passageway in the back of the mouth.
Our taste buds provide only four distinct sensations: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Other flavors come from smell, and when the nose is blocked by a cold, most foods seem bland or tasteless.
Both smell and taste require us to incorporate—to breathe in or swallow—chemical substances that actually attach themselves to receptors on our sensory cells.
The average human being, it is said, can recognize up to 10,000 separate odors. We are surrounded by odorant molecules that emanate from trees, flowers, earth, animals, food, industrial activity, bacterial decomposition, other humans. Yet when we want to describe these myriad odors, we often resort to crude analogies: something smells like a rose, like sweat, or like ammonia.
Our culture places such low value on olfaction that we have never developed a proper vocabulary for it. In A Natural History of the Senses, poet Diane Ackerman notes that it is almost impossible to explain how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it. There are names for all the pastels in a hue, she writes—but none for the tones and tints of a smell.
Nor can odors be measured on the kind of linear scale that scientists use to measure the wavelength of light or the frequency of sounds.
Coming Soon- The Memory of Smells….