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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Sunflower Seeds

Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Our Marvelous Sense of Smell

Our sense of smell is a marvelous gift we sometimes take for granted. Let’s take a few minutes today to reflect on this gift. Some of the information here is from Diane Ackerman’s fascinating book, A Natural History of the Senses. 

Our olfactory cells are located in the backmost recesses of our nose. Every breath we take passes over these cells.

Our sense of smell plateaus about age 8.
Our sense of smell plateaus about age 8.

This means we are smelling constantly. Our nose knows no rest. (I had fun writing that sentence!) The other four senses get “time off” every now and then. The human nose has 5 million olfactory cells. That might seem like a lot until we learn that a sheepdog has 220 million and can smell 44 times better than we can. Many other animals can smell better than we lowly humans. Pigs can smell truffles under 6 inches of soil. Salmon can smell the distant waters of their birth. And a male butterfly can smell a female butterfly miles away.

Watch a dog going for a walk. It is constantly sniffing the sidewalk, the grass, a tree, a rock. One sniff tells the dog what other dog has been there, its age, sex, mood, health, and when it  passed! For a dog, says Ackerman, sniffing is “like reading the gossip column of the morning newspaper.” Our human sense of smell is inferior to many other animals simply because we don’t need it as much to survive. Though our sense of smell is somewhat feeble, it can still detect thousands of different scents even in infinitesimal quantities. (So don’t turn up your nose at your nose!)

Our sense of smell is the only sense that has a direct connection to our brain. This helps make smell our most evocative sense. One whiff of a scent can recall vivid memories. Once, when I was in my 40’s, I was walking through the perfume aisle of a store. Suddenly, before my brain had time to process anything, I was recalling Grand Marais, Michigan where I had vacationed in the summer as a teenager. What had happened? I had caught the scent of a particular perfume I wore in Michigan as a 16-year-old girl. That scent had the power to transport me back in time and place!

Our sense of smell is also linked to the parts of the brain that process emotion. I walked into a Czech restaurant once and immediately got this warm and happy feeling. Why? The aromas had taken me back to my Grandma Mach’s kitchen on Thanksgiving Day—a place and time I associated with warmth and happiness.

Our sense of taste relies heavily on smell. That’s why food tastes differently when your nose is stuffed up. We taste only four flavors: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. Says Ackerman, “Everything else we call flavor is really odor.” Some researchers go as far as to say that “wine is a tasteless liquid that is deeply fragrant.”

Ackerman writes,”Each person has an odor as individual as a fingerprint.” A dog can easily identify its owner even if he or she is an identical twin. A police dog can track the scent of a single criminal even though hundreds of other people might be around.

Here are a few more interesting (at least to me!) facts about our sense of smell:

Flowers, like this gardenia, use scent to attract insects for pollination. Others use scent to keep insects and animals away. animals.
Flowers, like this gardenia, use scent to attract insects for pollination. Other plants use scent to keep insects and animals away.

+ Nationality influences fragrances. Germans like pine, Japanese like delicate scents, South Americans want stronger ones. In Venezuela, for example, floor-cleaning products contain ten times as much pine fragrance as those in the U.S. We humans are funny. In one way we want to live in sanitary quarters. But then we fill our homes with fragrances of pine, lemon, cinnamon, and flowers of all kinds.

+ Amnosia is the inability to smell. About 2 million Americans suffer from this condition. Individuals with amnosia are at risk in detecting fires, gas leaks, and spoiled food.  Research has shown that Alzheimer patients often lose their sense of smell along with memory.

+ Companies make products that are “scent free.” But the products aren’t really. Manufacturers have to add some kind of neutral scent to mask the odors of the chemicals used in making the product!

+ There are individuals called “odor artists.” These people will design a particular scent for companies. The scent for the Sheraton Hotel chain, for example, is a combination of fig, clove, and jasmine.

The woman anointing Jesus' head with fragrant oil shortly before his death.
The woman anointing Jesus’ head with fragrant oil shortly before his death.

+ Women consistently out-perform men on all tests of smelling ability.

+ One of the first gifts the child Jesus received was frankincense, a gift of fragrance. One of his last gifts was also the gift of fragrance. Shortly before Jesus died, an unnamed woman anointed his head with spikenard, a highly fragrant and very expensive oil. Jesus seemed to welcome the anointing, praising the woman for her loving and extravagant action toward him. (Mk. 14:3-9)

Some questions for reflection:

1. Do you have any favorite scents?

2. Has a particular scent ever evoked a memory or emotion for you?

3. What role do scents play in your everyday life? in your prayer life?


Here is a gentle song that fits with today’s theme. It’s called “The Fragrance Prayer” and was written and sung by Jacque Darragh. The words are a beautiful prayer by Blessed John Henry Newman. I hope you like it.




9 Responses

  1. Great reflection on scents Sr. Melannie! The song was perfect.

    My favorite scent was the smell of my grandparents’ home. It always made me feel like I was welcome and loved. They are long gone but every once in awhile I smell that scent again and I know that my grandparents are there and praying for me in heaven.

    God bless!


  2. I have 2:
    1. brewing coffee, always reminds me of going to my grandmother’s. We would open the door to her home and that was the first thing I would smell.
    2. Herbal Essence body spray: was popular in the 70’s and for some reason I used it a lot when we were in Lourdes, so that smell always takes me back there!

  3. Not as prevalent as it once was, but the smell of a lit pipe always brings my grandfather to mind. I used to clean his pipe, put new tobacco in it, tamp it down, and even lit it a time or two if he was driving the car. I have a keen sense of smell, and usually can identify things before others even get a whiff of it. If only chocolate didn’t smell so good! God surely gave of lots of usable and enjoyable senses.

  4. I imagine that you had a lot of fun writing this one. Did you?
    Your writing is always fantastic!

  5. Dear Readers, I gave a copy of this reflection to my sister, Mary Ann, last week. She said whenever she smells crayons she is transported back to James A. Garfield Elementary School where she went in the 50’s. She loves the smell of crayons because she loved school as a little girl. Even today when she colors with her grandchildren, she smells the crayons and thinks of that school. Sr. Melannie

  6. Every once in awhile my mind brings back the aroma of one or other of the homes my family visited when I was growing up, especially those “out in the country.” I presume those unique scents expressed the combination of the people who lived there, the foods that were cooked, baked and preserved there, the place’s source of heating and many other factors, like the smells from the cellar and attic. Blessed memories of warm welcomes.

  7. I remember those wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at grandma’s when the whole family came together. Thanks for the memory.

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Meet Sr. Melannie

Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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