How to sharpen your sense of smell—without using your nose

Warburg/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

How to sharpen your sense of smell—without using your nose

Athletes and dancers improve their work by imagining themselves practicing physical skills, and musicians get better after imagining a performance. Now, it turns out, professional smellers can also mentally enhance their game. Researchers asked 20 experts to identify 47 chemicals that resemble everyday odors such as those of bananas and roses. Then, for 10 days, one group of participants viewed photographs of 10 items they had sniffed and spent 1 minute imagining each item’s scent. When the researchers retested the participants’ ability to identify the chemical odors, those who had practiced "olfactory mental imagery" performed up to four times better than before training, the team reports this month in the Journal of Sensory Studies. The improvement varied depending on the odor smelled. Participants improved most when smelling coriander and plastic, yet showed no improvement in mushroom and rubber scents. This may be due to differing degrees of difficulty for creating a mental image for different odors and may call for basic training in how to form a mental image of elusive scents. 

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