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What the Nose Knows

By March 2, 2020No Comments

It’s a seminal passage in literature, so famous in fact, that it has its own name: the Proustian moment — a sensory experience that triggers a rush of memories often long past, or even seemingly forgotten. For French author Marcel Proust, who penned the legendary lines in his 1913 novel, “À la recherche du temps perdu,” it was the soupçon of cake in tea that sent his mind reeling.

But according to a biologist and an olfactory branding specialist Wednesday, it was the nose that was really at work.

This should not be surprising, as neuroscience makes clear. Smell and memory seem to be so closely linked because of the brain’s anatomy, said Harvard’s Venkatesh Murthy, Raymond Leo Erikson Life Sciences Professor and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Murthy walked the audience through the science early in the panel discussion “Olfaction in Science and Society,” sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the Harvard Brain Science Initiative.