“We can’t turn off our noses and stop smelling as we’d die.” I can’t quite remember where I read that capsule quote which explains our sense of smell so bluntly and yet so tellingly. While we can of course breathe through our mouths, and stay alive that way, the quote makes a poignant point: we are lost as to what to do with our noses other than live.
Our sense of smell in our contemporary world is of little consequence where all things visual dominate. So why bother to think even of how to train our sense of smell? After all, we barely think about let alone use our sense of smell as a standalone faculty, with its incredible capacity to enrich our world and enliven our souls.
Our sense of smell instead of being regaled is so often labelled our 5th sense; denigrated and written off as a last and least useful in the pecking order of senses.
I know some of you will think this hyperbolic intro far to OTT. Of course we have use our sense of smell as we choose home fragrances, body lotions, washing powders and so on. We follow our nose to food stalls and cafes whose aromas of fresh-baked rolls, muffins and coffee waft across our paths. Sure, we all experience pleasant smells that turn our heads and unpleasant ones that make us recoil; but that’s just the tip of our sense of smell. My stance is that… “We’ve lost our own unique birthright sense of smell in our smell-neutral world.”
Do we follow our nose or society’s?
We’re conditioned from birth to attune our noses to a received olfactory version of our world. Our noses – aka the brain lobes responsible for processing smells into emotions and reactions and rekindling memories – are put on a straight and narrow sensory path from year dot in our lives. Let me explain.
Animals rely on their noses in a way we left behind in primeval times; so they are particular good reminders that we tend to associate smelling with the animal within or something earthy and unpleasant that we should banish from our lives. It’s OK for a toddler to have sensory overload and touch, sniff and even taste whatever’s within its reach.
As we grow up we learn human behavioural norms in a civilised society. But, sadly, we tend to sweep the baby away with the bath water, literally. We leave our olfactory journey in childhood.
Except for vision, most of our senses are dumbed down; none more so than our sense of smell. From childhood we are told to wash, clean teeth and change our undies, and then in puberty, urged please to use deodorants and so on. Our over-perfumed world starts young.
In these days of younger and younger beauty influencers on social media, even from our first few years we’re whitewashed into believing smell-neutral or sweet smelling is good and anything else bad.
Never too late to train your nose
I believe that to truly appreciate scent – whether the scent of the outdoors, or that of an artisan, lesser known niche firm products or big, brash celebrity brand fragrances – we need to rekindle our scent DNA; if we’ve lost it, or it’s not activated in later life, we need to train it to surface again to live life more vibrantly. Plus, research is showing that activating and purposefully training ourselves to use our sense of smell is aiding Alzheimer’s patients to slow memory loss.
When I was a child, growing up in a small market town in Hampshire, UK, I could run free in the fields and rivers behind my house. Sadly, I think my generation is the last to have this freedom to experience the big outdoors. These days, with our children so chaperoned and taxi-ed and there is little chance for them to use their innate senses to experience their formative years.
Our over-mediated world – made all the more so due to the pandemic – defines our and our children’s living moments. Whether we’re sitting in front of computers or not, there’s no avoiding the fact we experience less in real time for ourselves and far more via something or somebody else.
Whether kids or adults, we just don’t use our senses to sense for ourselves – in real time. And our sense of smell, that languishing 5th sense, is one that we dumb down more than any other. It might cross our minds in a cursory way when we opt for one washing liquid over another but as we purchase we’re not even smelling; we’re just assessing smell from visible clues of packaging and prose.
Of course, the Covid pandemic put our sense of smell centre stage. A key symptom people experienced not only during their infection but long after too was a loss of their sense of smell. Only when faced with not having it do we realise what this sense does for us and how vital it is to our living fully.
What a world we could live in if we used all our senses to good effect all the time. So, my final rallying call is to say don’t think for a moment that your least used sense isn’t powerful. Give it a run for its money and you’ll live life more fully.
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