The aromas in the universe can be termed as infinite; it is only now that one can understand the odors which human olfactory mechanism could detect. A recent study has pegged the figure at 1 trillion which is almost a hundred million times over the general consensus on the ability of detecting odors by humans.

The study involved gauging the ability of human nose to detect different odors and the results showed that the human nose is far more sensitive than what it is normally credited for. Medical science is well accustomed to the limits of human auditory and the visual sense organs. This experiment for the first time tried to benchmark the abilities of the human nose. The nose happens to be the most sensitive sense organ when compared to the abilities of the other sense organs. The eyes for example can differentiate between a few million colors while the ear can hear some 340,000 tones. The nose on the other hand can differentiate a trillion different odors.

Study author and molecular neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall of the Rockefeller University said, “Ten thousand is kind of pathetic — it’s a pretty low number. It led to the idea that humans have a comparatively low sense of smell.”

Using a procedure much akin to a hearing exam in which participants have to distinguish between two tones, Leslie and her colleagues put 26 noses in the test. Every subject was given 3 vials, two of them having the same odor. Participants were told to identify the odd one out. Each subject was made to go through hundreds of these tests and the assumption was made that subjects’ performances would be similar in recognizing all possible smells able to be made in the lab. The researchers inferred that an average human nose can distinguish over 1 trillion odors.

The earlier figure of 10,000 odor estimate was based on an earlier outdated manuscript by two American chemists who based their scent classification on four distinct odors- fragrant, acid, burnt and caprylic. It was much akin to the primary colors which made up all the colors. The latest work confirms that odor is an incredibly rich, variable, and nuanced medium.

The study was published online Thursday in Science.


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12 Responses

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  3. FF_Bookman

    re-read the article — you say humans can “hear” 340,000 tones, but we hear much more than tones, we hear subtle changes that science hasn’t even been able to agree on terminology for, much less measure.

    i think soon enough science will show that they discovered a new way to measure sound, and wow, look at that, our ears are doing more than we originally thought.

    cool story, thx for posting.

  4. FF_Bookman

    Great article. We are just scratching the surface of understanding how humans actually work.

    FYI – scientists are pretty clueless about our sense of hearing, or otherwise how we sense sound waves.

    Much like odor sensing is just starting to be benchmarked now (and our initial estimates appear to have been way off), we benchmarked human hearing in the 1960’s through 1980’s, and we made so many false assumptions and were trapped into very bad results, leading to bad science, and to this day much misinformation on how we hear.

    Add to that engineers and paid shills from companies representing audio compression formats posting the garbage everywhere as “settled science”.

    It would be like paid mcdonalds reps posting here that humans can actually only smell 1000 smells, and all of those 1000 smells are available in every mcdonalds.

    • rtqp

      I think it stems naturally from the fact that the very nature of Science is to test and re-test something to death. This is the only way to get rigorous, reliable results, but it also breeds a form of myopia. Really, though, I think Science is doing things properly. What we’re missing, these days, are some really good generalists… Ben Franklin, Tesla, etc… guys who hopped fields a lot. Cross-pollination, I guess you could call it.

      • FF_Bookman

        yes I fully agree, good points. the science of our senses seems myopic for sure, at least when findings are cross-posted all over the internet. some of it is a side-effect of scientific method — if we can’t reliably locate and ID a data point, we have to dismiss it. where did the big thinkers go?

        i hate being a person that ever calls science “wrong”, because it puts me in a boat with a lot of people i don’t respect much, but when it comes to the science of our human senses i really do think we are pretty clueless about the details of the system.

        we know the basics – survival of the obvious – simple identification of our senses and perhaps how to restore some lost function medically. but I know there are at least 20 different terms that musicians use to describe sound that scientists have no equivalence for, no way to reliably ID them, so they have to ignore it all. throwing all of that out makes any findings from the subsequent experiments shaky if not downright incorrect.

        scientists who can’t hear most of the things a musician or producer can hear have been publishing papers about how we can’t hear.

        you have to consider the goal of the science, aka what are we trying to solve? by trying to quantify what our senses do, are we really doing pure science or is there an agenda that is not stated?

        mcdonalds paid scientists aren’t going to convince us what we taste, nor should digital audio programmers tell us how analog sound works.

      • rtqp

        I guess my “sense” on this particular matter is that perception is an active process. People can be trained to distinguish odors. Listening skills can be developed. In regards to audio, with each passing year I feel a bit more able to say, “Yeah, that’s about 3200hz.” Aside from the upper range we all lose to age, my hearing has gotten BETTER, simply due to practice. There are even audio tapes you can get for “ear training” to try and accelerate this process.

        So, what one person is able to smell or hear can vary widely. You want to test the potential range of that, sure… and to even study that, you need a few of these dumb studies, just to get a baseline. My initial comment was in the sense of, “About time they figure that one out.” They did get to it eventually…

        While we’re here: The sense of taste is just absolutely crazy. I don’t think it’s properly defined as merely salty, sweet, whatever… it is a compound experience: Smell heavily influences taste. The texture of a food as you chew it. Whether it’s hot or cold. How hungry you are…. and yet, you just get a chart of the tongue labelled, “salty, sweet, bitter, savory”…. or was it “fragrant, acidic, burnt, capyrilic” ?

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