WHY THE SEA DOESN'T SMELL LIKE SALT

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Submitted Date 04/16/2019
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In 2017, I was fortunate to land a science writing fellowship. Since the publication I was working with focused on Earth observation, I chose to profile an important oceanographer. As I was drafting my article, I tried to set the scene of my scientist on a ship, in the Gulf of Mexico. I described the motion of waves bobbing the vessel, seagulls calling overhead, and the salty smell of the sea air. That's where my editor/mentor stopped me. Salt doesn't have a smell, she told me. My first inclination was that it couldn't possibly be true. However, since she worked with a reputable NASA-funded science magazine, I figured she probably knew what she was talking about. To test her assertion out, however, I went downstairs to the kitchen, picked up the salt shaker, and shook its contents out into the palm of my hand. Then, I bent my nose to it and sniffed. Nothing.

All my life, I'd been associating things like the misty air coming off the ocean, the odor of bacon, and the scent of brine with the word "salty" and all my life I'd been operating under a misconception. To understand why salt doesn't have a smell, perhaps it's important to understand how our sense of smell actually works. Our noses operate on moisture. If you've ever had a really dry nose, you probably realize this already (or if you've ever had a really runny one).

I love the smell of cucumber. It might seem an odd choice, but it's one of my favorite scents. In order for me to smell that cucumber, tiny droplets of cucumber must be released into the air. That usually happens when the vegetable is sliced open and the juice vaporizes. Those microscopic cucumber particles float through the air until they come into contact with my nose. They travel up my nostrils and stick to the layer of mucus inside. Some of that mucus covers what's called my olfactory epithelium, a small yellowish organ way up inside my nose (we can call it the "smell organ" if you want). The smell organ is loaded with neurons, little sensors that pick up on the chemicals dissolved in the mucus. Once those sensors are triggered, they send a signal up into the olfactory bulb. That's like your brain's signal transportation hub. That hub takes all of the smell signals, turns them into brain signals, and shuttles them off to two major parts of the brain. One part of my brain says, "Oooh, cucumber!" And the other part says, "Hey, remember that one time when we smelled cucumber?"

That's a very simplified version of what happens. The point here is that to be able to smell something, teeny bits of it have to physically be transported into your nose (so, when you smell a fart, you're actually getting particles from someone's butt into your nose). Well, salt, like a diamond, is a solid mineral. Since it's pretty stable, its molecules don't fly around in the air. So, no particles means no tiny bits to go up the nose and stick on the smell organ, which means I can't sense salt with my nose.

Turns out though, that I can smell loads of other stuff with my nose. In fact, I can smell better than I can see, taste, feel, or hear - 10,000 times better. The part of my brain that says, "Oooh, cucumber!" is called the piriform cortex and it is what helps me identify cucumber as cucumber. The other part of my brain that gets the signal is called the limbic system. That part is connected to memories, emotions, and motivation. So, the second I smell cucumber, I can recall other memories I associate with the smell of cucumbers.

And that's why I'll never write, "the salty smell of the sea" ever again.

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  • Ceara 1 week ago

    Wow, what a game-changer. Now I find myself wondering, what is the smell that we associate with the ocean and other salty things?

    • Jen Parrilli 1 week ago

      Here\'s an article you might be interested in: https://www.popsci.com/seasmells and this one: https://www.thoughtco.com/why-bacon-smells-so-good-607445

  • Tomas Chough 5 days, 22 hours ago

    So insightful! I could've sworn I knew the smell of salt too, lol. Thanks for sharing this interesting information!

  • Kiersten Felch 3 days, 23 hours ago

    That's so insane and I'm glad I learned something new. We always think we understand the world....until we don't.