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I’ve had a collection of essential oils for two months now, and have been trying to learn their names by smelling them. When picking one of them out randomly and without looking at the label, I try to guess the name. I must have done every one of them a minimum of thirty times.

My EMORI collection consists of Basil, Bergamot, Cinnamon, Citronella, Clove, Cypress, Eucalyptus, Frankincense, Ginger, Grapefruit, Lavender, Lemongrass, Nutmeg, Patchouli, Peppermint, Spearmint, Tea Tree, Vetiver, Wintergreen, Ylang ylang; and the blends Anti-Anxiety, De-stress and good sleep, Calm down, Kama Sutra, Muscle relief, Silhouette slimming.

It has proved very difficult for me to learn the names of these smells. When I pick out a bottle randomly, I can rarely guess the name, even though I can easily smell the odor. It isn’t because I have lost my sense of smell. I can smell every one of them even when held two inches away from a just opened mini-bottle. I just did a test using a ruler and holding the bottles four inches away from my nose, and I had no difficulty in smelling the unique odors.

In another test, I take any three bottles, look at their labels, and then scramble them, and then without looking at the label sort them by name with better than 90% accuracy. So, I can smell them, and I do have a good ability to sort them when the list is short. As a variation I have randomly selected, that is, without looking at the labels,  pairs of bottles, then looked at the labels, scrambled the two, and then sniffed and sorted them. I am near 100% accurate for discriminating the names between any two bottles just by scent.

Why can’t I even come close to remembering the names of these smells when randomly picking one out from the pack of 26 bottles? I have read that rats can learn to avoid something that makes them sick on one exposure, and will avoid eating it from the smell alone. Also, they can teach their rat pups to avoid that particular smell. Isn’t there enough volume in my brain for a pea-size bit of memory dedicated to smells? Apparently not.

Or, perhaps it has to do with getting sick being associated with a specific odor. I’ve read that we have nearly as many sensor cells in our intestinal tract as in our brain; so perhaps there is a linkage there. I don’t know. It is written that inability to detect odors is an early sign for the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, but I don’t have any difficulty detecting the odors, only a very poor ability to form a long-term memory of their names.

A considerable part of the pleasure of eating is the odors that come while chewing food, and those odors are quite different from most of these essential oils. Some of the oils are standard food additives, such as peppermint and basil, but I’ve never heard of people adding musk or patchouli to their meals.

With huge industries based on smell and food odors, there must be some theoretical understanding of what is happening.