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Does nose breathing enhance cognitive performance?

This sounds a little weird right? But the research I am talking about has been  published in a respectable journal (Journal of Neuroscience 22 October 2018, 3360-17) by a group of bona fide researchers in Sweden. So, let’s take it on trust for the moment.

The research tested two groups, one of which breathed through the mouth and the other through the nose. Net net the nose-breathers performed better than the other groups on later olfactory tests. (“Breathing Through the Nose May Offer Unique Brain Benefits).

That sounds straightforward right but what about the bit that it makes you smarter?

The simple explanation is that nose breathing activates the olfactory bulb and hence associated neuronal centers in your brain, but in that case, it is limited to just the olfactory system. The more expansive interpretation is that, since the olfactory system is connected to other brain systems that are associated with memory, it activates these systems too.

Have you heard about the “peanut butter test” for Alzheimer’s? This research claims that you can tell if someone has Alzheimer’s by giving them a smell test with peanut butter. This research has not been replicated so far. But wider studies have demonstrated a link between olfactory performance and cognition including a higher probability of dementia as olfaction declines.

And for those of you with a literary bent, you might remember that famous madeleine in Marcel Proust’s epic work “In Search of Lost Time” where the mere smell of a cookie precipitates a cascade of memories covering a lifetime.

Sometimes the novelists get it centuries before the scientists….

We all know that the sense of smell in humans is bad. It’s been bred out of us by thousands of generations of safe domesticity where we didn’t need all our senses to smell predators, let alone potential lovers. If we need smell you use a dog, right? But what happened to all those neurons that used to do all this stuff? They are presumably still there but living in a state of laconic tranquility and neural lassitude.

But we know that they do something, as we see in the above olfactory research, and the novelists’ understanding of their connections with memory. If we could figure out the mechanism, could we get the neural olfactory factories up in our noggins to get cracking again? And because they are hyper-connected to memory mechanisms and other mechanisms that we don’t at present understand, would this re-empowerment also increase our cognitive functioning, including memory?

So, my first idea is smell training for humans. Although it might sound comic, it actually exists, in the form of sniff training. But here the purpose is purely transactional like smelling a gas leak or foods that are “off”. Cognitive performance is a step too far; it really hasn’t been thought of as far as I can see. But there are ways you can go nonetheless.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the famous author Aldous Huxley and his epic novel “Brave New World”. Huxley was a seer and he foresaw television, even though he writes his novel in 1931. But he saw even more. He coined the term the “feelies” which were movies where you not only say and listened, but you also experienced the sensations of the experience through metal knobs that you hold while you watch the movie. Moving, right?

Despite the notable achievements in TV, movies, streaming and virtual reality, smell is the one sense that isn’t accommodated in modern immersive experiences. Until we make that giant step, we are not going to experience true immersion.

So, I propose that moviemakers add smell to their products; we will naturally call them “smellies”. In the smellies you also get smell as well as sound and vision. Add haptic feedback, you also get Huxley’s feelies. Then you have it all, for the true full immersion that is the holy grail of modern entertainment.

Of course, you might sniff (sorry) at this and say it’s just science fiction. You’d be wrong. A group of researchers in Malaysia are developing digital technology to simulate smell electronically ('Digital smell' technology could let us transmit odors in online chats). It’s in the early stages right now, but the train is leaving the station.

Armed with this research, entertainment vendors can start to develop and market their smellies. They will have the knowledge to refine the power of the smellies to excite and immerse us in new ways.

In developing the smellies, vendors need to do a lot of exploratory research that explores the links between cognitive and memory performance and olfactory inputs. This will open a totally new field in neuroscience. It will provide us with a new tool for exploring memory formation and recall, how this affects thinking processes and issues such as the cascade of memories observed by both scientists and novelists such as Proust. We can see this area as being a missing link in modern neuroscience.

My concept of modern smellies is where you can provide olfactory experiences to the great unwashed. I think that will open up not only a totally new vista for entertainment, but also stimulate the development of human cognition including new types of memory performance and recall.

Let’s wake up and smell the coffee!




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