World-class 'noses' made, not born

2011-03-09 21:11

Paris - World-class "noses" in the perfume and wine business are not born with an outsized sense of smell but acquire it through years of professional sniffing, according to new research.

In experiments with novice and veteran perfume makers, French scientists found that the ability to detect and identify hundreds, even thousands, of different odours depends almost entirely on rigorous training.

"To be a 'nose' you have to practise, just as a pianist plays his scales," said Jean-Pierre Royet, a neuroscientist at the Universite Claude Bernard in Lyon, France, and the main architect of a study published this week in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

Over time, the study also showed, activity in the brain shifts from the area that governs conscious effort to a region in which actions are performed automatically, like breathing or swallowing.

This makes it possible to graduate from technical competence to artistry, the researchers argue.

In the same way that musicians can be more creative once they no longer need to concentrate on technical virtuosity, great perfumers can conjure new scents just by imagining - and mentally mixing - the smell of individual ingredients.

Previous research had shown that constant training changes the brain activity of musicians and athletes, but no one had investigated whether the same would hold for olfaction, the ability to detect odours.

Brain scans

To find out, Royet and colleagues enlisted 28 volunteers, half of them student perfumers, and the other half scent makers with five to 35 years in the business.

The researchers scanned the brains of both groups during two kinds of tests. In one, the subjects were asked to identify dozens of odours selected from a standard palate of 300 chemicals.

In the other, they had to imagine the smells after looking at their chemical names.

Both groups scored well in the two tests though, not surprisingly, the old pros were more accurate and faster, especially when it came to retrieving the smells by memory.

What surprised the researchers is that different parts of the brain lit up.

For novices, activity was more concentrated in a region, called the frontal cortex, responsible for conscious perception.

For the veteran sniffers, neurons fired more vigorously in the parahippocampal gyrus, an area involved in memory recall and mental imagery.

Mind develops after practice

"Our findings demonstrate the extraordinary ability of the brain to adapt to environmental demands and reorganise with experience," Royet said by phone.

They also show that "mental imaging of odours develops from daily practice and is not an innate skill", he added.

Not all experts agree that odour detection is purely a matter of learning.

Patrick Mac Leod, former head of the Laboratory for Sensorial Neurobiology, near Versailles, says that olfactory thresholds vary dramatically.

"No two people will ever smell the same thing in the same way," he noted. "When we perceive an odour the exact nature of the sensation that is produced depends as much on the observer as the object."

In experiments, he has shown that a small quantity of a given molecule may be imperceptible for one person and easily detected by another. For a different chemical, it may be the reverse.

350 olfactory genes

These thresholds can easily vary from one person to the next by a factor of a thousand.

Mac Leod also points out that the human genome contains nearly 350 olfactory genes - far more than for vision or hearing - resulting in highly individualised odour detection.

"You are never going to transform someone who is insensitive to a certain molecule into someone who smells it well," he said.

But even these variations in perception and genes, he acknowledged, do not change the core finding that practice makes perfect when it comes, say, to sniffing out the difference between a tanky or toasty wine.

"It's a little like a policeman who combs through dozens of clues to find the truth. With training, the nose becomes a keen investigator of anything related to odours."

Read more on:    science
NEXT ON NEWS24X

SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
0 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
/News
 
Traffic
Lottery
 
  • Monday Welgemoed - 11:58 AM
    Road name: Jip De Jager Drive
    TRAFFIC LIGHTS not working at Kommissaris Street
  • Monday Milnerton - 11:51 AM
    Road name: Koeberg Road
    TRAFFIC LIGHTS not working at Bosmansdam Road - expect delays
 
More traffic reports...
 

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Jobs in Western Cape region

Junior SQL Developer

Claremont
DAV Professional Placement Group

SEO Specialist

Cape Town Southern Suburbs
Itopia Interactive
R15 000 - R20 000 Per Month

Senior Account Manager x 2

Cape Town CBD
Switch Consultants (Pty) Ltd
R25 000 - R30 000 Per Month

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

2 TV Series for R250

Get 2 TV Series box sets for R250 and save up to R148! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Mind blowing deals on beauty & fragrances

Save up to 30% off beauty and fragrances. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 50% off hair care products!

Save up to 50% on professional hair care products at kalahari.com. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

30% off academic books

Score a mind blowing 30% off academic books! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Mind blowing deals on electronics!

Save up to 35% on electronics. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

BlackBerry Curve 9380

The first BlackBerry Curve smartphone with a touch screen Stay connected...

From R1799.00

I'm shopping for:

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

There is a strong emphasis on relationships. Obsession, emotional disputes, retaliation or competitive actions are highlighted....read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.