The power of the human nose

Scientist, author, and self-proclaimed science evangelist Ainissa Ramirez is calling for big changes in science education and just launched a new podcast series called Science Underground. Ramirez joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss one of her latest podcast episodes, “Taste With Your Nose.”

TRANSCRIPT

AINISSA RAMIREZ IS A SCIENTIST, AUTHOR, AND SELF-PROCLAIMED SCIENCE EVANGELIST.

SHE IS CALLING FOR BIG CHANGES IN SCIENCE EDUCATION.

SHE JUST LAUNCHED A NEW PODCAST SERIES CALLED 'SCIENCE UNDERGROUND.'

HERE TO DISCUSS ONE OF HER LATEST PODCAST EPISODES, CALLED 'TASTE WITH YOUR NOSE,' IS AINISSA RAMIREZ.

SO, I GOTTA ASK ABOUT THE PROPS.

I'M PROBABLY GONNA CONTINUE TO EAT THESE PROPS WHILE WE CHAT, BUT WHAT DOES TASTING WITH YOUR NOSE MEAN?

ALL RIGHT, SO WE ALWAYS LEARN THAT TASTING IS PRIMARILY WITH OUR TONGUE, BUT THAT'S ONLY HALF THE STORY.

ACTUALLY, IT'S LESS THAN HALF THE STORY.

IT'S ACTUALLY WITH YOUR NOSE.

SO, I WANTED TO TRY A LITTLE EXPERIMENT WITH YOU.

OKAY.

SO, HOLD YOUR NOSE, PUT A JELLYBEAN IN YOUR MOUTH, AND THEN CHEW.

NOW, WHAT YOU'LL NOTICE IS THAT YOU'RE ABLE TO TASTE THE SWEETNESS, BUT YOU'RE UNABLE TO TASTE THE FLAVOR.

LET GO OF YOUR NOSE.

OH, MY GOSH.

PRETTY AMAZING, RIGHT?

I NEVER DID THAT BEFORE.

THAT'S -- IT'S SO SIMPLE.

YEAH! YEAH. SO, WE TASTE MOSTLY WITH OUR NOSE.

OUR TONGUES HAVE A HANDFUL OF SENSES -- BITTER, SALTY, SWEET, AND THEN SOUR.

AND THEN THERE'S A NEW ONE CALLED UMAMI, WHICH IS FOR SAVORY TASTES.

AND ALSO, SCIENTISTS THINK THAT THERE'S FAT.

HANDFUL OF TASTES.

YOUR NOSE CAN SENSE 1,200 FLAVORS.

1,200 FLAVORS.

1,200 FLAVORS.

VERSUS FIVE OR SIX.

THAT'S RIGHT, SO THAT'S WHY YOU ONLY TASTED THE SWEETNESS, BUT YOU DIDN'T TASTE THE FLAVOR OF WHAT THE JELLYBEAN WAS.

AND SO, SOMEWHERE IN OUR BRAINS, THIS -- THERE'S OBVIOUSLY PATHWAYS GOING FROM HERE TO HERE BUT ALSO HERE TO HERE, AND THEY TOUCH.

THAT'S RIGHT.

YES. SO YOU ARE ABLE TO TASTE BECAUSE IT GOES THROUGH YOUR NOSE BUT ALSO IT GOES THROUGH THE BACK OF YOUR MOUTH, AND THAT'S HOW YOUR NOSE IS ABLE TO SENSE THESE DIFFERENT TASTES.

NOW, WE'VE ALL EXPERIENCED THIS.

WHEN YOU'RE SICK AND YOU CAN'T TASTE YOUR FOOD, IT'S BECAUSE YOUR NOSE IS CONGESTED.

AND THAT'S WHY YOU'RE UNABLE TO TASTE SOME THINGS.

THAT'S INTERESTING.

THAT'S KIND OF THE FIRST THING THAT I DID WHEN I WAS PINCHING MY NOSE, IT'S LIKE, 'YEAH, THIS KIND OF TASTES LIKE WHEN I WAS SICK,' BUT I DIDN'T REALIZE THAT THAT WAS... SO, BUT OUR RECEPTORS ARE ALSO CAPABLE OF FIGURING OUT, I GUESS, THE MOST CORE THING, 'IS THIS UNHEALTHY OR DANGEROUS FOR ME OR NOT?'

RIGHT?

RIGHT.

THERE'S SOMETHING THAT WE TRIGGER WHEN WE WALK INTO A ROOM AND WE SMELL SOMETHING THAT'S CHEMICAL OR GAS.

WE KIND OF REACT TO IT.

YEAH, AND WE HAVE A DIRECT LINK TO OUR BRAIN WITH THAT.

IN FACT, THEY'VE DONE STUDIES WHERE THEY WOULD PUT A MOUSE IN A CAGE AND THEY WOULD HAVE A SMALL PIECE OF COTTON, AND IT WOULD HAVE CAT URINE ON IT.

AND THE MOUSE WOULD MOVE AS FAR AWAY AS IT COULD FROM THAT COTTON, EVEN THOUGH IT COULDN'T SEE THE CAT.

SO, THERE'S A DIRECT CONNECTION BETWEEN SMELL AND THE BRAIN.

SO, WHAT HAPPENS?

WHEN YOU SAID 1,200 RECE-- I MEAN, THESE ARE DIFFERENT RECEPTORS?

I MEAN, HOW DO SMELLS BIND?

RIGHT. THEY'RE DIFFERENT RECEPTORS, AND A FLAVOR IS ACTUALLY A COMBINATION OF DIFFERENT MOLECULES, AND YOU CAN THINK OF THE RECEPTORS AS DIFFERENT KEYHOLES, EACH ONE TAKING A DIFFERENT MOLECULE.

AND WHEN THEY REACH THOSE DIFFERENT KEYHOLES, THAT REGISTERS AS A TASTE.

AND SO THAT MEANS THERE'S DIFFERENT COMBINATIONS OF THINGS, TOO.

THAT'S RIGHT.

SO, COFFEE IS LIKE 50 DIFFERENT MOLECULES, AND YOU CAN CHANGE A COUPLE OF THE MOLECULES, AND ONE WILL BE A ROAST, AND ONE WILL BE A FRENCH ROAST.

SO, THERE'S -- THAT'S HOW TASTE IS.

WHY IS IT MORE DEVELOPED IN SOME PEOPLE THAN OTHERS?

THAT'S MORE OF A GENETICS THING.

I MEAN, I DON'T KNOW FULLY ABOUT WHY THAT'S THE CASE.

BUT WHAT I WANT TO SHARE WITH YOU IS THAT, YOU KNOW, THIS TASTING WITH YOUR NOSE IS GREAT FOR US, BUT AS YOU GET OLDER, YOUR ABILITY TO TASTE FOOD DIMINISHES BECAUSE YOUR NOSE -- THE RECEPTORS BECOME LESS ABLE TO DETECT DIFFERENT FLAVORS.

SO, YOU KNOW, THE REASON WHY GRANDMA MAY BE TASTING MILK THAT'S A LITTLE SOUR IS THAT SHE CAN'T TASTE IT.

SHE DOESN'T HAVE THAT ABILITY TO TASTE THAT IT'S SOUR NOW -- OR THAT THE MILK IS OFF.

SO, WHAT THEY'RE STARTING TO DO IS THEY'RE ACTUALLY STARTING TO PUT LITTLE SENSORS ON MILK SO THAT PEOPLE CAN KNOW IF IT'S OFF OR NOT, AND ALSO THEY'RE STARTING TO DEVELOP NEW SPICES SO THAT IT WILL ACTIVATE THE TONGUE BECAUSE THE NOSE IS NOW DIMINISHED IN ITS ABILITY TO TASTE FLAVORS.

I'M ASSUMING PEOPLE THINK ABOUT THIS OBVIOUSLY IN THE PERFUME BUSINESS, RIGHT, BUT ALSO WHEN YOU'RE COOKING FOR, SAY, AIRLINES.

I'VE HEARD THAT OUR TASTES CHANGE WHEN WE'RE 30,000 FEET IN THE AIR OR WHATEVER, THE PRESSURES, OR SOMETHING.

THERE MAY BE SOME PRESSURE DIFFERENCE, BUT I DO KNOW THAT MARKETERS USE SCENTS, NOT ONLY FOR PERFUMES, BUT THEY'LL PUT WONDERFUL SCENTS IN AREAS THAT THEY WANT YOU TO SHOP.

SO THAT MOVIE WHERE THEY WANT YOU TO GO BECAUSE THERE'S A SCENT, AND YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW IT.

WOW.

YEAH.

WE'RE BEING MANIPULATED.

WE'RE BEING SORT OF -- IT'S ALMOST LIKE THE CARTOONS WHERE YOU SEE THE LITTLE TRAIL AND --

THAT'S RIGHT.

WE'RE JUST KIND OF BEING HOOKED BY OUR NOSES TO GO SHOP IN SPECIFIC PARTS OF THE STORE.

THAT'S ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.

AINISSA RAMIREZ, THANKS SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

THANK YOU.