"Somebody who wants to learn how to differentiate and appreciate different wines -- they say that anybody can learn how to do that," says Wendy Suzuki, author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life. "You may not become a master sommelier, but you can learn. The trick is to simply give yourself lots of different olfactory stimulation." She is a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University.
Sally Swift: You have written a ton about how exercise can make your brain function better. But what have you discovered about the role of food and eating and brain function?
Wendy Suzuki: This is not my research, but there is growing research on the effects of different kinds of foods, including the effects of sugar on brain function. Sugar in particular has a double-edged sword. It's a little bit like stress. A little bit of sugar can be great to focus your attention and make your memory better. But too much chronic sugar has very bad effects, not only for the body, but for the brain as well. It's similar to stress where a little shot of stress when it's needed in a stressful situation can help push more blood to your muscles; it enhances various brain functions. But again, too much can actually result in cell death.
SS: You have done a little bit of work on smell, or at least I know you're interested in smell.
WS: I'm interested in smell because of my 20 years of experience studying this critical structure of the brain, critical for long-term memory. It's a structure called the hippocampus. We know that if you don't have your hippocampus, you can't form any new long-term memories.
The sense of smell has this privileged access to the hippocampus in essentially one connection or one synapse. Smell information can go directly into this hippocampus structure important for long-term memory. By contrast, the other senses, vision, hearing and touch, have to go through many, many more synapses and much more processing before they get to the hippocampus.
SS: Has there been a lot of research on the olfactory end of things? It's one of the oldest parts of our brain, is that correct?
WS: Absolutely. It's one of the oldest senses, present in very simple animals. There has been an enormous amount of research on the olfactory system. But it's relatively late because it's actually very complicated despite the fact that it's evolutionarily old. It's very complicated and in fact more difficult to understand than some of the other senses. The sense that we understand the most from a neuroscience perspective is vision. That is very straightforward. We've learned a lot about the brain through our study of the visual system.
Olfaction is a harder code to crack. Yet there have been great successes; multiple Nobel Prizes have gone to neurobiologists focused on how we code and differentiate between different senses within the olfactory system. So that's on an upswing. Olfaction is like the hot new sense to study in neurosciences.
SS: You write a little bit in your book about brain hacks -- some exercises that people can do to improve our brains by working with smell.
WS: This is the paradigm of the sommelier. Somebody who wants to learn how to differentiate and appreciate different wines -- they say that anybody can learn how to do that. You may not become a master sommelier, but you can learn.
The trick is to simply give yourself lots of different olfactory stimulation. How do you do that? Pick your most odoriferous meal of the day. It might be breakfast with rich toast, coffee and jam. Really pay attention to those different flavors. Really try and give yourself as much experience as possible. Go to an Indian restaurant if you're not familiar with Indian food and try and differentiate all the different flavors.
This brain hack is based on a study that was done in rats that have a very good sense of smell. They raised some rats in environments where they enriched the olfactory environment; they gave them lots of different smells to smell on a continuous basis all day. Simple things that you can get in the kitchen, basil and oregano.
They compared their olfactory brain, the olfactory bulb, to rats that were raised in an environment with no olfactory enrichment, with just the regular rat chow and water. What they found is that the olfactory bulb, this part of the brain critical for sensing smell, was significantly larger in the rats that had all of these different smells to experience all day.
So the implication is that we can do the same thing just by trying out different restaurants and different kinds of cuisines with lots of different flavors. The implication is that we would increase our olfactory bulbs.
In fact, my thought experiment is that I would love to do a brain scan study on sommeliers versus just regular non-sommeliers and ask whether the olfactory bulbs of the sommeliers are significantly larger than the regular population. That would be my prediction.
SS: Essentially what you're saying is be mindful. If we're mindful and think about what we're eating, we're going to be building up this part of our brain.
SS: I live with a wine person; he can name a smell and it just immediately comes to him. He is someone who will say, "This is something that I've practiced doing." But is there something different about the link between smell and getting the language to work for people?
WS: It turns out that olfactory information goes directly to the hippocampus, and it also goes to these olfactory brain areas that process olfaction. It turns out that you have to go through a lot of synapses, a lot of connections, for that olfactory information to get to the language part of our brain.
That is very different from visual information for humans -- that goes directly to our language capacity. It's very easy to describe visual things that we see. But the hypothesis is because there is no direct connection from the olfactory areas of the brain to the language areas of the brain, that makes it that much harder to describe these things verbally. That is not to say it can't be done, but it takes practice.
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Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.