Our Underused Senses

Our five senses are the portals, or gateways, through which the brain gets its entire contact with the outside world. We rely primarily on our senses of vision and hearing because they quickly tell us a lot about our environment. Our other senses—smell, taste, and touch—are less frequently and obviously called upon. To understand this better, close your eyes and try walking through a room. Instantly, the world around you changes radically. Sounds, smells, and spatial memories of your physical surroundings leap into consciousness. With vision gone, your sense of touch suddenly becomes paramount. Navigating even a familiar environment is a real challenge, and your brain goes into high alert.

The brain has a huge network of pathways based on visual information. That's why so many everyday experiences are geared to visual appeal. In magazine, television, and billboard ads, businesses use visual associations to encourage purchasing decisions. In a world increasingly dominated by shrink-wrapped, plastic-packaged, and deodorized items, the efforts demanded of our other senses, such as touch and smell, are diminished—far more than we're consciously aware of.

Information and associations based on smell used to be far more relevant than they are today. A keen sense of smell was often vital to survival. Native Americans could track animals by their smell; farmers could smell when a change in the weather was about to happen; smell was important in making sure that foods were safe to eat; doctors even used their sense of smell to diagnose illness. Today, unless you have a very special job, such as creating perfumes, aromas usually function as masks (that's why we use deodorants and fragrances).

Despite its diminished role in our daily lives, however, the sense of smell plays an important role in memory. Associations based on odors form rapidly and persist for a very long time,

unlike those based on the other senses. The olfactory system is the only sense that has direct connections to the cortex, hippocampus, and other parts of the limbic system involved in processing emotions and storing memories (see illustration, page 10). That's why certain aromas like fresh-baked bread or a particular flower, spice, or perfume can trigger an abundance of emotional responses that


"Smart Drugs" and diets?

Progress in neuroscience research has also led to promising drugs for treating serious brain ailments like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. But an unfortunate by-product of this progress in a society oriented to a "pill for every ill" is a growing demand for medications, pills, or diet supplements that will either magically halt declines in mental abilities or improve performance with a quick

The media perennially tout the promise of new memory-enhancing pills with advertisements for "smart drugs." There are, in fact, drugs that do increase the synaptic transmission in the brain in various ways, and some of these may provide short-term memory enhancements. The problem is that there are always hidden and still unknown risks in using such drugs. (Remember the negative side effects on athletes who took steroids to boost physical performance?) Furthermore, the effects of "smart drugs" are only short term, so they have to be taken continuously.

If, magically, there were a drug to increase mental performance, it would do no good unless you were exercising the brain at the same time. It would be like drinking one of 'thosehigh-protein boosters and then not doing any physical. exercise.

There are also claims that brain performance can be enllanced or preserved by taking large amounts of certain naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, or plant extracts. While there is no question that a well-balanced diet and physical exercise are important for maintaining a healthy brain, there is no clear scientific evidence to support the claimed memory benefits of specific dietary supplements.

We believe a more prudent route to brain health is to I) Lanless the brain's ability to manufacture its own natural nutrients. With this approach, neurotrophins and similar molecules will be produced in the right places, and in the right amounts, without side effects.

stimulate the memory of events associated with them. (For example, realtors often advise you to have something delicious baking in the oven when you're showing your house for sale. And if you saw Scent of a Woman, you'll remember how Alpa_ cino's blind character could call up complex associations based on smell alone.)

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