Posted by & filed under Cultural Variation, Learning, Neuroscience, Sensation-Perception, Sensory-Perceptual Development.

Description: Quickly consider and respond to this question. Of all your senses, which is the most important to you and which is the least important to you? Odd are VERY strong that you put smell at the bottom of the list as your least important and the one you would offer up if you had to pick one sense to lose. Historically this has always been the case. As a species we tend not to see ourselves as having an adept sense of smell, especially when compared to our dogs who can smell a BBQ in progress from a great distance (like, 20 kms!!) off. I have to admit to contributing to this sensory disregard. When I am teaching a section on sensation and perception in an introductory psychology class, I spend little or no time on smell (though we DO cover it inn our textbook!). Well, guess which sense is having its moment in the sun as it were? Perhaps you hear something about the HUGE number of complaints makers of scented candles were getting, starting last spring, that their products were defective and had no scent at all. Would it surprise you to hear that the sudden inexplicable loss of smell is actually the BEST symptomatic predictor of Covid-19 infection far better than cough temperature or stuffy nose? Yes indeed, smell is VERY important. And how doe Covid cause this loss of smell? Well, I won’t ask you to hypothesize as, like me, I suspect your knowledge of the olfactory system and brain-based smell processing areas is minimal at best and likely marginal if not non-existent. Instead, read the article linked below or use the second link to listen to an audio podcast version of the article to find out how this meteoric rise to sensory super stardom proceeded for out previously lowly sense of smell.

Source: What Can Covid-19 Teach Us About the Mysteries of Smell? Brooke Jarvis, The New York Times Magazine.

Date: January 31, 2021

Photo Credit:  Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

Article Link: or listen to a podcasted version here:

So, are you now amazed and entertained by the new importance of our sense of smell? The number of people worldwide who are hanging closely on current research about the timing or the extent of the recovery of smell after Covid infection is vast. It is a huge shot in the arm (metaphorically speaking) for researchers like the author of the linked article who study human smell. While we may not apologize we (and especially people like myself who underplayed my opportunities to talk about human smell and research into it) do smell research, smell researchers and our own sense of smell a GREAT DEAL more respect.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How has the human sense of smell been viewed historically?
  2. How does the loss of sense of smell compare to other self-reported symptoms of Covid-19 infection?
  3. What do you know now about the ways we process smell that you did not know before you read or listen to this article and has what you read or heard changed where you would rank smell in relation to your other senses?

References (Read Further):

Young, Ed (2015) Why do Most Languages Have So Few Words for Smells? The Atlantic. Link

Gerkin, R. C., Ohla, K., Veldhuizen, M. G., Joseph, P. V., Kelly, C. E., Bakke, A. J., … & Group, G. C. C. R. (2020). The best COVID-19 predictor is recent smell loss: a cross-sectional study. MedRxiv. Link

Parma, V., Ohla, K., Veldhuizen, M. G., Niv, M. Y., Kelly, C. E., Bakke, A. J., … & Hayes, J. E. (2020). More than smell—COVID-19 is associated with severe impairment of smell, taste, and chemesthesis. Chemical Senses, 45(7), 609-622. Link

McGann, J. P. (2017). Poor human olfaction is a 19th-century myth. Science, 356(6338). Link

Sorokowski, P., Karwowski, M., Misiak, M., Marczak, M. K., Dziekan, M., Hummel, T., & Sorokowska, A. (2019). Sex differences in human olfaction: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 242. Link

Majid, A. (2020). Human Olfaction at the Intersection of Language, Culture, and Biology. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Link

Horn, Leslie (2011) Majority of Kids Would Rather Lose Their Sense of Smell Than Lose Facebook, PCMag, Link