Have you noticed how you can suddenly be taken back to a different place and time, just by a smell? It seems that our sense of smell is linked to some very basic aspect of our brains where memories and emotions are stored. Smells can mean danger or comfort, they can trigger fear or excitement. What does the smell of coffee mean for coffee lovers?
What Happens When You Smell the Coffee?
Perhaps the old saying should go: Smell the coffee and wake up. Some people, it seems, do wake up when they smell coffee. And not just people—it also happens to rats.
A scientific study in Japan deprived some rats of sleep for a day. They found that the expression of eleven genes important to brain function was suppressed as a result—this was shown by the reduced activity of messenger molecules called mRNA.
When the rats smelled coffee, the mRNA for all the genes was restored to normal or above-normal levels. We don’t know if the same genes work in the same way in humans, but it could be that ‘gene reactivation’ is the secret of coffee’s effect on our noses.
Is It About the Anticipation?
It may be that the smell of coffee gives pleasurable feelings of anticipation of what is to come. Even without being addicted to caffeine, the brain seems to like its effects since caffeine can stimulate the release of endorphins, and the smell indicates to the brain that caffeine is on the way.
The same may also go for the other ritual aspects of coffee preparation. Harsh noises may set the teeth on edge, but the soft sound of a quiet coffee grinder gets a real coffee lover in the mood for what is to follow.
Some experiments seem to show that the smell can be even better than the taste. It seems that when we sniff the coffee, the molecules waft across our smell receptors in one direction, but when we swallow it they go in the opposite direction and this can have a disappointing effect.
What Makes the Coffee Smell?
Researchers have discovered hundreds of compounds in coffee, many of which are detected by our sense of smell. It may be that the complex interaction of a large number of odoriferous triggers in one breath have a particularly powerful effect on the smell receptors and then on the brain.
Compared with most other mammals, humans have a very poor sense of smell, so perhaps there is something about coffee which has just the right combination of strength and depth to reach parts of the brain that other smells cannot.
Enjoy the Day
Many people find that the day is not the same without a cup of coffee to start it. Of those, there are very few for whom the smell of the coffee is not part of the experience. Whenever you drink coffee, you will surely always enjoy it more for the fragrance that precedes it.
Aimee Russell never really ‘understood’ the appeal of coffee before she took up a job at her local coffee roasters – But then her eyes were opened! Aimee writes about coffee, food and leading a healthy lifestyle.