Wednesday April 23 2014
Smelling in Stereo

This week's experiment comes from the research of two scientists from Rice University. Denise Chen and Wen Zhou have been experimenting with the science of smell, and have made some very interesting discoveries. To explore that, you will need:

- two or more things with strong, distinctive smells
- your nose

Don't use anything toxic or irritating. For their study, Chen and Zhou used the smell of roses and the smell of a marker pen. I decided to try the experiment with dill pickles and cinnamon instead, and got some very strange looks from Nancy.

The idea is to smell a different smell with each nostril. Hold one smell very close to your right nostril, and the other smell very close to your left nostril. Then inhale and pay close attention to what you smell.

What you should find is that one smell, either the pickles or the cinnamon, will be very strong. After another sniff or two, the first smell will go away, and you will smell the other scent. Keep sniffing, and the first smell will come back. Instead of smelling the two smells evenly mixed, they will alternate back and forth.

Why? Chen and Zhou found that your sense of smell acts much like your sense of sight. Hold a book in front of your nose, so that your left eye sees things on the left side of the book, and your right eye sees things on the right side of the book. Now your eyes are seeing different things in the room. Notice that you can't focus your left eye on one object while focusing your right eye on another object.

If you try, you will find that your vision alternates, first on one eye and then on the other. Your brain jumps back and forth, paying attention to one and then the other.

The same thing happens with your nostrils. If they are smelling different smells, your brain pays attention to one and then the other. The only problem that I had was deciding which to eat first, pickles or cinnamon toast.

Have a wonder-filled week.

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