Neuroscientist Says We Perceive "Smounds"—Half Sound, Half Smell

By Smriti Rao | February 25, 2010 2:24 pm

Homemade_buffalo_wingsEver wonder why buffalo wings always smell so awesome when a football game is blaring in the room? Scientists have proposed that the way food smells could possibly be related to the sounds we hear when we consume them.

They note that there could be a connection between smell and sound, a hybrid sense they call “smound.” The theory is  in findings published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Daniel Wesson made the possible neural connection quite by accident when he was studying the olfactory tubercle, a structure at the base of the brain that aids odor detection. He was observing mice when he put his coffee mug down. The clunk of the mug hitting the desk produced a spike in the mice’s olfactory tubercle activity.

Studying the tubercle further, Wesson and his colleague Donald Wilson first confirmed that 65 percent of tubercle cells were activated by at least one of the five odors presented to the mice. Then the cells were presented with only a tone–and 19 percent fired.

Then they took the experiment to the final step, Wesson explained to Scientific American:

The next set of recordings “really changes the way we think about smell,” Wesson says. He and Wilson repeatedly sent a mix of both odors and tones into tubercle cells and saw that responses from 29 percent became either enhanced or suppressed depending on the presence or absence of the second stimulus. One cell, for example, appeared not to care for either smell or sound but responded robustly to the combination.

The existence of smound, Wesson says could aid in the development of new technologies, like a gadget he envisions for bomb-sniffing dogs. A small device would emit a tone into the dog’s ears as he sniffs objects, which could potentially make him more sensitive to the smell of things like explosives.

On a day to day basis, smound could possibly be used to pair food and music, potentially augmenting our appreciation of these stimuli.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: What are Smells Made of?
DISCOVER: Raw Data: Scents and Scents-Ability
DISCOVER:Smell Your Way to Happiness
DISCOVER: The Fake Smell of Death
DISCOVER: The Electronic Nose

Image: Wikimedia/Stef Yau

MORE ABOUT: hearing, senses, smell, smound, sound
  • JMW

    …the smell and sizzle of a steak…

  • Anna

    How bizarre! I definitely associate certain places with sounds and smells, but I never thought about sound and smell being so linked. I’ll have to pay extra attention to my senses from now on.

  • glittalogik

    Does the finding that certain sounds stimulate olfactory sensitivity and really require tacking on a pointless portmanteau? We are not all suddenly synaesthetes, hearing F# isn’t going to make fries smell like they have tomato sauce on them, and this is not a hybrid sense demanding new nomenclature. It’s an interesting interaction, to be sure, but I don’t see any need to spin a catchphrase out of it.

  • David44

    I largely agree with glittalogik, I think. We know that there is a strong connection between smell and taste, but we don’t call it a sense of smaste. It doesn’t seem surprising that it would be evolutionarily advantageous for the brain to have neurons (co-neurons?) present in one sense-processing area to make it more sensitive to simultaneous stimulation by a different sense. Our senses don’t normally act in isolation. It would be interesting to know what neural connections these adjacent cells (which react differently) have with other sense perception and processing centers.

  • Dr. John

    But there are artistic and therapeutic considerations to this discovery that are not immediately obvious. How could we enhance the therapeutic benefits of music therapy by including specific olfactory stimulation? What about enhancing the artistic experience of a musical presentation by having an adept smound man in the booth. Perhaps the impact of the religious experiences of those in Catholic cathedrals, in native American sweat lodges and other rituals, in sacred ceremonies utilizing Indian incense , inside Buddhist temples and in other meditative practices, have all intuitively and perhaps with other insight incorporated this simultaneity to good effect. I vote for smound without the bracket of quotation marks, and I believe that this meme is already spreading its wings too rapidly for any of our naysaying to catch up.

  • Tamsin Blunt

    Loving these dimorphic terms. I wonder how the Liger eats…………..?


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