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Human nose can detect one trillion smells, says research

The human nose is millions of times more sensitive than previously thought, suggests new research, but wine tasters may struggle to find the vocabulary to take advantage.

Team leader Andreas Keller says even the one trillion figure could be an understatement

Experiments by researchers the Rockefeller University in the US found that humans are capable of detecting at least one trillion smells.

To obtain that number, a group of volunteers were asked to distinguish between different solutions containing different combinations of 128 odour molecules.

The findings mark a significant jump from the generally accepted figure of 10,000 odour mixtures, which has long been considered too low.

‘We have more sensitivity in our sense of smell than for which we give ourselves credit,’ said team leader Andreas Keller. ‘We just don’t pay attention to it and don’t use it in everyday life.’

The study adds complexity to notions of sensory perception and could have implications for wine tasters’ ability to understand subtle changes in the glass.

But, some wine experts argue narrow vocabulary still is a potential barrier to applying the new research.

‘One can train one’s sense of smell and possibly improve it, but the challenge is putting it into words,’ said Richard Bampfield MW, who runs regular wine education classes. ‘The issue as a wine taster is can you describe what you’re smelling?’

He added that those learning about wine shouldn’t become obsessed with counting the number of aromas they can detect. ‘Don’t be alarmed if you can’t smell a trillion smells.’

The Rockefeller research is published in the March issue of Science journal.

Written by Chris Mercer

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