The sense of smell is a mystery—and the human sense of smell is a particularly inscrutable one. Only in the last 25 years have scientists identified the molecules in our noses responsible for detecting odors, and since then, the unexpected discovery of a new family of olfactory detection molecules has complicated the story. When the complexities of the human brain, human motivation, and human variation are added to the mix, the question of what smells do to and for us becomes even more perplexing—and intriguing.
Essayist and physician Lewis Thomas wrote that understanding the sense of smell “may not seem a profound enough problem to dominate all the life sciences, but it contains, piece by piece, all the mysteries.” Scientists from all fields are coming together to solve these mysteries of olfaction, and their investigations are starting to reveal that the sense of smell can move us in ways that we aren’t even always aware. While it’s clear that scientists are far from closing the case on smell, it is also becoming increasingly obvious that the power of the human nose is nothing to sniff at.