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.
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:
+ 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.
+ 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.