Smithsonian Magazine: Sniffing Out the Science of Smelling

Olfaction has always been our underdog sense. It’s both primitive and complex, which makes it hard to study and harder still to transfer to our increasingly digital existence. Our scientific understanding of how smell works lags so far behind our grasp of hearing and (especially) vision, and smells cannot at this point be recorded or emailed or Instagrammed. In one 2011 survey, more than half of young adults admitted that they would rather forfeit their ability to smell than their smartphones.

But just when it seemed that the nose could not recover from its nose dive, along came the coronavirus. Afflicted people robbed of their sense of smell realized that they couldn’t register the smoke of fires actively burning down their houses, or the scent of their spouses (torpedoing marriages, by some accounts), or even the savor of a candy bar.

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