Kia ora! Hi. Over here. Yes, that’s me waving at you from the centre of your face.
I know we’ve had an awkward relationship at times. Like that time I wouldn’t stop dripping while you were trying to impress the school principal and you ended up with snot smeared all over your face. Or that time I seemed to grow much faster than the rest of your features, so I looked like a bulbous growth on your sensitive adolescent ego.
But we’ve grown into each other since then, right? Right?
You see, I’m used to being the one hiding out in plain sight, keeping my talents veiled. But just quietly, I know I’m crucial to your survival, physically, socially and – dare I say it – in love as well.
Let’s start with the obvious. What do you need to live? Oxygen! How does it enter? Through me. Most of the air you breathe enters through my capacious passages. And when I say capacious, I mean it. Some people are surprised when they find out just how far back I go into your head. Those nasal swabs you’ve been having might give a clue. (And that’s only part of the length needed to satisfy me.)
When you breathe, air gets pulled in through the front door – my nares, or nostrils – and into the secret back-party room. Here, the molecules swirl around my architecturally designed interior, a warm, dark space with three curved wall features (the upper, middle and lower conchae, also known as the turbinates). My walls are not just pretty, they’re also the latest in air-conditioning design. They moisten and warm the air so it’s the perfect temperature for gas exchange to occur when it reaches the lungs.
Babies must breathe through their noses – it’s an adaptation they are born with to allow them to breathe and suckle at the same time. But grown-ups can choose whether to breathe through me or my colleague, the mouth. I’d advise choosing me.
Research has shown (I knew all along) that breathing through me lowers your stress levels, helps you sleep, improves your exercise fitness, improves dental health, lowers blood pressure, and improves heart health. I also improve your memory, alert you to dangers, and make you super sexy. Read on.
First, let me inform you of my security features. As your gateway, I’m equipped with the best. Those nostril hairs that you cringe at in the mirror? They’re a very effective broom, keeping randoms where they belong: outside. After that, anything wanting to score a free ride into your body has to contend with a tidal wave of sticky mucus that is constantly produced (a litre a day; more when you’re unwell). Much more effective than sprinklers on a parliamentary lawn. And, of course, there’s the sneeze – my high-tech expulsion device, travelling up to 5m a second, ejecting toxic organisms as aerosols for other suckers to breathe in. (In case you’re wondering, sneeze style is genetically determined.) But should intruders still stick around, immune cells breaststroke through my mucus, eliminating their targets with more efficacy than Navy Seals and none of the toxic masculinity. (Hope you’re feeling better about the snot now.)
I also make nitric oxide, a gas that not only opens up blood vessels in the lungs, making them more efficient, but also may prevent viruses such as Covid-19 from multiplying and taking hold. I’m also exceptionally tidy; the perfect flatmate. The vanquished occupiers are swept efficiently towards the door by the coordinated movements of tiny cilia, microscopic “hairs”. These cuties Mexican wave those who have outstayed their welcome back to where they came from. Hasta la vista!
Speaking of bad smells, did you know I can detect more than a trillion unique scents? Great to make sure you don’t swallow something that’s off, but I am also a purveyor of good taste and – get this – I can detect disease. Sometimes I can smell the early onset of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or someone who’s crashing into a diabetes coma.
My sense of smell (okay, I can’t actually smell, that’s the brain’s processing job, but I pick up the signals) also affects memory. You may have heard that of the five senses, smell is the most effective at triggering lost memories. But breathing through me also improves your recall: associating smells with events embeds them deeply. Memories lead to emotions: that’s why I’m so important when you’re in a place and a smell brings it all flooding back.
Smell is also a key part of what I assess when you meet someone. A person’s smell can clue you into all kinds of things, including your past memories relating to them. Noses also pick up on personal hygiene (okay, shallow, but we all do it), general health, or even if someone’s lying: my temperature increases if it’s fake news. But stress makes me react the opposite way: my temperature drops, possibly because you’re breathing more quickly.
If you’re having trouble finding your direction, I can help. I am a built-in GPS, or rather OPS (olfactory positioning system). As with other animals, humans can navigate along “smell maps” to find their way to things, such as bacon, when other senses are muted. Yes, I know, I am awesome.
My form is also a map of your great-great-great-grandmother’s travels. Did you know that over time, I have evolved into different shapes, affected by such factors as climate change and sexual selection? I am your ancestors’ histories carried on your face. Why would you want to change me?
I know you want to get to the sexy bit before we finish. Have you ever noticed that when I’m blocked, your sex drive is . . . off? That isn’t just due to discomfort, it’s because I play a key role in your arousal. Memory, health, attractiveness, emotion. . . I’ve mentioned it already. But there’s also a mysterious pit located on my septum (the bit of flesh between the inside of the nostrils) called the VNO (vomeronasal organ). It’s rich in nerves and blood vessels, and some scientists think it triggers hormone release when it detects pheromones, as it does in other animals. Unbelievably, this isn’t an area that has been prioritised in scientific research. But the entire perfume industry might be built on it.
So that’s me, the quietly sexy, dangerous and perceptive one. I know you won’t be able to look away, now that you know my secrets. Nice to meet you, I am your nose.