Thursday, November 29, 2012

Olfactory white

Here’s an interesting tidbit of current sensory research that you can drop into a discussion in your A&P course.

You know how mixing different colors (wavelengths) of light produces a non-color mixture we know as white color?  The mixture of wavelengths make it hard to make out any single wavelength.

You know how mixing different sounds (frequencies) produces a bland hiss we usually call white noise?  The mixture of sounds makes it hard to make out any single sound. So many people use it to block out annoying noises.

Well, researchers in Israel have come up with mixtures of different odorants that produce a bland—almost indescribable—odor that makes it virtually impossible to make out any single odor.  They have nicknamed it white smell or olfactory white.

What good is that, you ask?  If white noise can suppress unwanted noise, then maybe we can use white smell to block out unwanted odors.

That would have some benefit, I suppose, when trapped on an elevator with folks returning from their cigarette break.  I could have used it back in the day when I was a zookeeper, I guess.  But I’m thinking the really critical applications will be for handlers of cadaver dogs and others who routinely encounter really sickening smells.

It didn’t take long after arriving for work at the Elephant House to get used to the odor—we all adapt to it after a few minutes.  But after a disaster, when searchers find one decaying corpse, then find fresh air, then find more putrefied remains, any previous adaptation to the odor will have worn off.  White smell could be very valuable indeed.

Go ahead and wear that annoying cologne—we’re ready for you!

Want to know more?
New smell discovered, and it smells like ... well, who knows?Stephanie Pappas  Live Science on updated 11/19/2012 6:19:55 PM ET[Brief article in plain English summarizes the significance of the discovery]
Perceptual convergence of multi-component mixtures in olfaction implies an olfactory white Tali Weiss et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States PNAS Published online before print November 19, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1208110109

[Original research article]

No comments:

Post a Comment