After working as a cannabis budtender for many years, a few phrases became second nature. One of my favorites? “The nose knows”. Many times, a customer would be there on the other side of the counter trying to decide between two different strains. Looking dejected as they remained utterly stumped. This is when the nose comes into play. I could put both jars in front of their faces, give them the ability to smell the nuggets within, and they’d know exactly what strain to choose almost immediately. Some patients even became off-put by cultivars that I myself found to smell delightful. The nose is a mystical thing. Even if we don’t track our food the way that animals do, the human nose is actually quite a bit more powerful than it appears at first glance.
The Science of Smell
The nose contains unique cells that send messages to the brain. These messages help us identify what we’re taking a whiff of as outlined in Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. In the book (published in 1990), Ackerman explains “Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it… We see only where there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we make contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough to hear. But we smell always and with every breath. Cover your eyes and you will stop seeing, cover your ears and you will stop hearing, but if you cover your nose and stop smelling, you will die.”
Neuroscientist John McGann of Rutgers University published a study meant to uncover the secrets of the mysterious nose. For years, research has been focused on other parts of the brain. McGann believes that this is due to the basic mass of the human brain. Other animals have smaller brains, and thus, their olfactory bulb takes up much more of their brain mass. The neuroscientist is confident that the human olfactory bulb is worth some more study. He believes that because we can distinguish between such an immense number of smells, this shows that our olfactory system is more complex than we originally thought.
So how does all of this mumbo jumbo relate to cannabis? Well, this definitely shows that the nose knows. This research shows that when we take a big old whiff of a jar of buds, the aromatics are sending messages to our brain. Without further research, we’re not 100% what those messages are. We do know, however, that most of the smell in cannabis is created by terpenes. Terpenes are aromatic phenols that exist naturally in every flower and herb. Around 80% of most common essential oils are made up of terpenes.
To help educate us all about these amazing compounds, The Trichome Institute has created a Interpenening Certification. This is akin to a Sommelier class, but for cannabis instead of wine. Terpenes have been shown to have valuable healing properties as well as delicious smells. Understanding the role of terpenes in our bud could unlock a lot of the secrets within the mystical cannabis plant.
Until then, keep trusting your nose. Afterall, The Nose Knows!