“I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:
Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well.” Psalm 139:14
Our bodies are amazing! Complicated and simple all at once. We are truly “fearfully and wonderfully made” and of all creation, we alone are uniquely made in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27). One of the most amazing functional parts of our bodies is our nose. How does it work? How do we smell aromas? Do aromas have any effect upon us?
The process of smelling things is a complex cascade of neuro-chemical reactions that takes place virtually instantaneously between our nostrils and our brains. Let’s take a trip reminiscent of the “Fantastic Voyage.” As we go, you will get a highly simplistic view of how smelling happens. Then we will consider what aromas do to us and for us.
Our nose is composed of thin muscles stretched over a primarily cartilaginous structure. Air travels up through one or both openings commonly known as nose holes – or nostrils, if you are over ten. As it enters, fine hairs trap foreign bodies and dust that we don’t want in our lungs. Further up is an amazing membrane, like “sticky flypaper” (Black and Butje, Inc. 2015), known as the olfactory membrane.
It is here at the olfactory membrane that the amazing process of smelling begins. Smells are chemical molecules; different smells are different structures molecularly. Each molecule fits into a receptor located in this membrane. Then BOOM! Faster than Flash Gordan, your brain registers a thought – identifying the aroma that just entered your nose!
The how of this process was documented and described in 2004 by a team that was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Since I wasn’t part of that team this will be a very simple bird’s eye view. Right above the olfactory membrane is a plate of bone separating your brain from the inside of your nose (a sinus cavity) – which is really a great idea if you think about it much. The smell-collector is connected to a structure, the olfactory nerve, that acts a little like the tube that sends your mortgage payment into the bank at the drive-through. The aroma itself does not enter the tube, but its chemical equivalent does. It travels at lightning speed directly into the limbic system and the cerebral cortex portions of the brain. In other words, scents freely cross the blood-brain barrier because they are carried into the brain in part by neuro-chemical processes. There are many well-done, brief videos concerning this topic found on YouTube. It is an amazing process for which we ought to be very thankful for.
Finally, what happens to us when we smell things? That too is a amazing process with many prospects and variables. Since the chemical message goes into the limbic system, what we smell affects us on emotional levels. Are there certain aromas you smell that transport you to a specific place, time or remind you of someone?
“It is a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.”
Aromas also trigger reactions in the olfactory cortex, a small part of the cerebral cortex, which not only receives the chemical message from the aroma, but also information from the limbic system and other areas of the brain affected, in order to prompt decision making. Do you see how complex the simple act of smelling can be?
Another amazing effect of aromas can be therapeutic. Aromas can relax or stimulate us, emotionally and physically. They can stimulate particular body systems, supporting healing from within. They can clear our minds and release suppressed emotions. The possibilities of benefit are as vast as the number of aromas we can smell.
The ability to smell is a blessing that impacts many aspects of our lives. We rely greatly upon our ability to smell and take it for granted far to often. Consider how frustrated you become when you have a stuffy nose and can’t smell anything; you can’t taste much with a stuffy nose either. Take time today to savor the aromas and smells around you. Find the nuances and uniqueness in each scent you come across. File them away for sweet memories later.
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved
and among those who are perishing”
2 Corinthians 2:15