I once had an MCAT teacher who was unable to smell anything for an entire year. After undergoing a bad eating experience at an Indian restaurant, he woke up to discover that his sense of smell had vanished. He spent the good part of a year with an effectively plugged-up nose, eating all kinds of foods indiscriminately with little enjoyment.

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland

Though he was never officially diagnosed, my teacher might have been suffering from something called olfactory fatigue. Characterized by an inability to distinguish odors from one another after prolonged exposure to a particularly strong-smelling agent, olfactory fatigue generally arises in individuals who spend large amounts of time around wine, alcohol or spicy foods. Olfactory fatigue is categorized as a type of sensory adaptation, in which the body desensitizes itself to existing stimuli so as to make room for new stimuli, thereby preventing our nervous systems from being overloaded.

The nose is a funny little organ. Debatably the most useless and least developed of our five senses, smell in the modern age has long acted like an extra appendage — and we don’t really know what it’s for. Scientific literature has imbued the olfactory bulb with some pretty mystical functions. Smell acts as sort of a first warning against invaders. It’s been suggested to warm up the digestion process and help us metabolize our food more efficiently. Smell is even intimately connected to memory. Like Proust’s whiff of the madeleine, smell can return us to our childhoods, evoking wonderfully nostalgic memories of times past.

You can “train” your nose to smell better too, according to experts. Director of the International Flavors & Fragrances’s New York perfumery school Ron Winnegrad suggests keeping small jars of ingredients such as vanilla, cloves, celery and pencil shavings around the house and smelling the collection for about half an hour a day. But there’s a special technique you have to procure in order to become a true olfactory connoisseur. Rather than take one deep sniff, Winnegrad recommends that smellers take two or three short whiffs and then exhale in order to prevent olfactory fatigue from kicking in.

If you’re already a victim to olfactory fatigue, researchers at the University of Oklahoma recommend that one should smell coffee beans in order to re-jolt their sense of smell back into shape. The study hypothesizes that this is because one of the 28 odorants contained in a coffee molecule can detach the original food odorants responsible for olfactory fatigue from their receptors. In a sense, the coffee scent will “refresh” the receptors in an individual’s nose to make way for new scent stimulants.

That’s the reason why perfume counters usually have a jar of coffee beans next to the scent samples – the coffee beans allow customers to better distinguish between scents by competitively binding to their olfactory receptors and kicking out the original perfume odorants.

My MCAT teacher eventually regained his sense of smell, but maybe the answer to his olfactory problem could’ve been as simple as ordering an espresso shot from Comet Coffee.

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