The nose knows more than we know

With their keener sense of smell, dogs are good at detecting bombs, drugs as well as following the trails of criminals on the run. At the height of the pandemic, trained dogs were put into service as sniffers of the Covid-19 virus in infected people. One persistent dog who kept scratching its owner’s chest helped reveal she had an incipient breast cancer and because of early detection, she was able to get immediate treatment that saved her life.

Intriguing isn’t it?

But here’s the case of a woman who can also smell the onset of an illness long before the appearance of the first visible symptoms.

An article entitled “The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s,” written by Alix Spiegel and published online tells the story of Joy Milne, a Scottish former nurse who developed an uncanny ability to spot the “musky” scent of the said disease. She can detect Parkinson’s even in persons who have yet to manifest the telltale symptoms associated with it just being in a room with a group of people or by sniffing clothes they have worn.

Joy’s amazing sense of smell is helping scientists identify certain specific compounds that may contribute to the smell that she noticed on Parkinson’s patients. It may also help medical researchers find new ways to diagnose other diseases.

Joy belongs to a rare breed termed as “super smellers” who may be genetically wired to smell better. Can this “superpower” be learned or developed? Why not? Some train themselves to enhance their sense of smell, such as wine connoisseurs and perfume experts. There are armpit-sniffing professionals who work for deodorant manufacturers; they spend their day smelling up to 60 armpits an hour to rate the quality of the deodorants.

There’s more to odors than meet the nose. It seems that we can literally smell danger. Serious studies have found out that human beings have a bundle of nerves connected internally to our nose that takes just milliseconds to send messages to our brain if something smells fishy or is amiss.  These nerves not only sense the danger but also tell our brain on the course of action to take. Fight or flight.

Our nose can also detect an impending death. When animals die, they release an unpleasant pungent smell. Medical experts say that under certain circumstances, some odors will be produced prior to dying and may indicate that an individual is close to death. There are documented reports that say some people smelled a certain odor when a loved one or patient was near death, while others haven’t had the same experience in the presence of someone in the process of dying.

What this tells us is that the functioning of the olfactory sense is quite complex, and we have barely scratched the surface. Maybe that incredible biological gift is there but, like the so-called third eye, most of us have overlooked it or neglected to use it.

People like Joy Milne with their super normal smelling abilities suggest to us that there is an untapped latent power right under our noses. If true, it opens up a whole new realm of potential uses and benefits. Can you smell the possibilities?

Perhaps in the near future, we can have a new branch of medical specialization in which trained doctors would be able to sniff out diseases such as cancer or heart disease ahead of symptoms so time can be bought to prevent it or avert the arrival of debilitating symptoms.

Why limit it to sniffing out diseases? Why not use the nose to smell an impending earthquake? If animals can smell the odors of gases released by the earth when an earthquake is about to happen, why can’t we have in the future a special team of geologists with super ability to smell earthquakes or volcanic eruptions before they occur.

A well-developed sense of smell can even help us size up people better. Note that the odor we emit are like fingerprints. Our individual pheromones can convey valuable information about us. These are molecules released by our respective sweat, skin oils, and other secretions, the same molecules that help animals communicate. So it is possible to predict certain personality traits just by smelling odor samples taken from an individual.

I am even willing to take it beyond the beneficial possibilities for health and survival. Why not harness our scent faculty to help us sniff out the most rampant diseases in our present society: corruption, dishonesty, greed, and cruelty, especially in those in power. And, conversely, a super scent that can detect innate goodness, honesty and other virtues to help us choose the most worthy and meritorious.

Someone once quipped: “You can dress up greed, but you can’t stop the stench.” Who was it that said that he wouldn’t condone transactions that have “even just a whiff of corruption?” But when unsavory and suspicious deals were being done right under his nose, there was not even a hint of condemnation.

If our other senses have made us blind and deaf to the mediocrity and misconduct around us, how I wish, to borrow a phrase, our sense of smell would shiver us awake.