Why does popcorn smell so irresistably delectable in the movie theater, but less so at home? What is it about stadium hot dogs that makes them taste better than the ones in your fridge? How is that a song or a jingle can bring a rush of scent memory so potent, you can’t believe it’s not real?
In a word: ‘Smound’. Our senses can be so intertwined that they sometimes join together into hybrids, especially in the case of smell and sound, as one scientist accidentally discovered in the lab one day.
Daniel Wesson was observing the olfactory tubercle, a structure at the base of the brain that plays a role in scent recognition, in lab mice when he set his coffee mug down with an audible ‘clink’. That sound produced a spike in the mice’s olfactory tubercle sensitivity, showing that the two were linked, according to Scientific American.
Intrigued, Wesson and his colleague Donald Wilson set out to learn more about that connection. In a study published in the February 24 Journal of Neuroscience, Wesson and Wilson confirmed that the tubercle cells of 23 anesthetized mice not only discriminated between various odors and responded to sounds, but had a surprisingly robust reaction to combinations of the two.
The researchers dubbed that hybrid sense “smound”. Wesson and Wilson plan to use this newfound knowledge to develop technology, including a device that could could emit a tone into a dog’s ear when it sniffs to enhance its sense of smell.
“While we like to think that there are five separate senses, that’s not the way it works,” Donald Katz, a neurobiologist at Brandeis University, told Scientific American. “What your brain really does is take objects and process them.”