Friday, October 29, 2010

THE SENSE OF SCENTS – Following Your Nose

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousand of miles and all the years you have lived.”

Why are smells so evocative?
Why is it that certain smells abduct us, transport us across years and miles, and drop us
into our mother’s kitchen or a north woods campsite, our grade school classroom or a back street in Rome? What is that power of smell that can animate even the most lethargic of memories?

One reason for smell’s evocative power is that olfaction (smell) is processed in the same part of the brain that handles memory and emotion. So, with those associations close at hand, smells can etch themselves into our memories in ways other sensory input might not.

We recall smells far more accurately and much longer than we recall visual stimuli. Come to think of it, even touch, the one sense you’d think might best capture and recall emotion, falls far short. While it’s certainly a powerful communicator at many levels, touch is a more immediate sensation, not known to plant the kind of mnemonic triggers that smell does.

One of my earliest, fondest memories is of the way my dad’s hands and face smelled just after he’d shaved. I realize now that the fragrance of his shaving soap was just one of those triggers, an association which, to this day, recalls the admiration, wonder and love I had—and still have—for my dad.

What smells have that kind of evocative power for you?

As you open your eyes to new discoveries,
remember to open your nose too!

For as long as I can remember, I've tried to give smell equal standing with my vision, hearing and touch, as a tool for discovery and wonder. When I pick up an odor I don't recognize, I try to find out what's causing it, where it's coming from. I explore and savor the beauty of smell, whether it's the surprising scent of the invasive buckthorn's nearly invisible flower, the rich, complex aroma of decaying leaves or the clean, sweet smell of fresh snow.

And I respect smell, as I do my other senses, for, once in a great while, kindling wonder, breaching that fine membrane that separates the sensory from the spiritual.

Yes, they do smell different. Would sleeping dogs lie?
There's a whole world of fascinating smells out there, awaiting our discovery. Some of them might  surprise you: lady bugs (especially when they're threatened);  sleeping dogs (yes, dogs smell different when  they’ve been sleeping); any number of unlikely plants; and even people.

Have you ever held a baby (one that doesn’t need changing) who doesn’t smell good? With adults, there seems to be a bit more variety. I’ve found we smell different not just because of varying personal hygiene habits or perhaps brands of fabric softener, but also by nationality—I assume due to our varying diets.

And we now know that, without our even realizing it, we humans—just like our fellow creatures—give off pheromones, subtle smells which can serve as powerful attractants to those with sympathetic receptors. (So that's why I'm feeling this strange attraction to you as you read this!)

As you open your eyes to new discoveries, remember to open your nose too!


Lalitha Alexander said...

Oh gosh, I'm so hooked to scents. I tried viewing your full profile,but for some reason it doesn't load. What do you do Jeffrey ?
In my 'Postcard Clan - Living Each moment' article that I was talking about,I write about scents too :) And there's this beautiful piece I discovered which is written by Gina Flores on the Patchouli. I'm sure you'd love to read her writeup. You'll find the link in my article. She's an aromatherapist in NY.
Glad to be in touch with you,

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