Sense of smell is a quantum mechanical phenomenon

Religion / Science

I’m fascinated of late with the places where the quantum regime of reality intersects with the deterministic human scale regime. (If we’re going to try to make use of “quantum mechanics” in a responsible way in thinking about spirituality then these are the sorts of places we need to look.)

So there’s a report published today that apparently identifies the mechanism behind the sensation of smell as being based in quantum electron state transitions:

“The idea is that an electron on one part of a protein may move, and arrive at another part lacking a quantum of vibrational energy.

‘The electron starts at one end of the room, if you like, and it can only make it to the other end if it gives up energy to the molecule in the middle of the room,’ he explained.

‘Once it’s arrived, you say ‘Aha! The fact that it’s here means that somewhere beteween where it started and where it is now there’s a molecule with the right vibrational frequency’.'”

Read the full article here.

This is interesting for two reasons off the top of my head. One, it means that apples smell like apples to everyone. Including flies. It removes the subjectivity of sensation – something philosophers have wondered about for a very long time. (Is my perception the smell of an apple the same as yours? Or do we have different consistent perceptions and just learn to associate them both with the concept of “apple”?) This would mean there is an external objective reality to the perception of smell – which is sort of neat considering that it’s a quantum phenomenon.

Two – if other perceptions have an absolute measurable reality, it means it might be worth thinking if the same is true for spiritual experiences. The fact that most, if not all, have a concept of a higher reality might mean that there’s an objective reality that could be tested – and it’s not a totally subjective expression that can not be discussed in scientific terms.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Anne Wolf says

    Our son, Ben, graduates in 2 months with degrees in physics and in music. He has struggled mightily with quantum – hates it, in fact, but would truly enjoy that apple’s smell – because Newton works for him! He just received (on Wednesday) an amazing fellowship from Rensselaer to get his masters in architectural acoustics. He wants to design sound spaces. On the other hand, Rachel has spent the fall semester in Chile, spring break in El Salvador, and will be back in Chile in the summer. She will have none of the philosophical or metaphysical around her. To see those clay eyes opened – that is Rachel’s reality. It is amazing how different kids are, and, whether an apple is an apple is an apple, what we see as the uses and purposes and joys of the apple are so different.

  2. Thanks Anne – you must be justly proud of what they’re accomplishing! I think, apropos of your point, that reality probably works just the same way your children’s perception of it does. It’s both classical and quantum at the same time. (The question that no one has really answered yet is how nature knows which to present to us when… Grin.)

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