Imade an interesting, even fascinating discovery this week. The subject of smell
gets people excited. Their eyes sparkle, their lips twitch with humor, and they
are eager to share their stories.
How did I get onto this?
stepped into the shower one morning and decided to try out a bottle of citrus
blossom bath foam I had picked up at the Rotary yard sale a few weeks
I dripped some of the liquid onto a sponge, sniffed the delicate
bouquet – and suddenly it was like entering a time machine during takeoff. I
hurtled right back to when I was 12 in London and dawdling around the perfume
counter in Woolworth’s, trying out fragrances and dreaming of romance.
wasn’t just recalling the scene; I was there
. And the power of it drove me to
ask some friends if they had any similar experiences to relate. I wasn’t
‘SMELL is the most evocative of all the senses,” one woman
began, by way of introduction.
“I’ve read that when people are in a coma,
a smell that is highly meaningful to them can rouse them when even music
Her own most vivid olfactory experience occurred on her honeymoon
several decades ago, and still contains an element of mystery.
to the coastal town of Worthing, in England, and I saw a guy washing the outside
of his cottage with a large mop. The smell of the detergent he was using took me
back so strongly to my childhood in Canada that I began to cry.
“I had no
idea what cleaner he was using, and for a while I went around looking for it. I
thought I had caught a whiff of it another time, on a trip to India, but I never
discovered what it was.”
Another friend struck a more somber
“I was involved in a near-fatal car accident, and spent a lot of
time in hospital. To this day – 25 years later – the smell of surgical plaster
traumatizes me. I just freeze.”
She brightened. “But here’s something
funny: Even when I know that my husband and I won’t be spending Shabbat at home,
I still often make chicken soup, so strongly does it evoke the memory of
IF you want to know something about the biology of
smelling, I recommend you go to YouTube and search for “How Do We Smell? –
Discovery Twins Episode 5,” an utterly charming exposition by two self-confident
small boys who will make you smile as you watch and listen.
nutshell: Our noses contain tiny hairs called cilia which, as well as trapping
things like dust and pollen, catch odor molecules. Also present are tiny nerves
called olfactory receptors; humans have about 20,000,000 (!) in each
Different nerve endings recognize different smells; one expert
talks about each molecule fitting into a nerve cell “like lock and key.” These
nerve cells send signals to the brain – though what actually causes the
olfactory receptors to react to the odor molecules remains a
Steve Pearce, one of the UK’s top olfactory experts, confirms
that no one fully understands how our sense of smell works. To him, it is by far
our most powerful sense – and our most underrated one.
Unlike with other
senses, he points out, nothing stands between the nerve receptors and the brain,
and this direct contact means “we get a very quick, very intense reaction to
Moreover, the reason why smelling something often brings back
memories – like my youthful lurking at the Woolworth perfume counter – is that
the brain areas to which the smell signals are transmitted form part of the
limbic system, which is involved with memory and emotional behavior.
would explain why my friend was moved to actual tears, all those years ago,
after smelling something as prosaic as cleaning fluid.
A BIOLOGY lesson
at school taught me, quite dramatically, that taste doesn’t exist without
Our teacher asked for volunteers to be blindfolded. I raised my
hand. After asking us to hold our noses, she offered us, alternately, slices of
onion and apple.
Both were crunchy; and denied the pungent smell of the
one and the sweet-tart aroma of the other, I was astonished to discover that I
couldn’t differentiate between the two.
Explains olfaction researcher
Prof. Tim Jacob of Cardiff University: “The tongue can only distinguish the four
basic tastes: bitter, sweet, salty, sour. Smell detects flavor and
(I wonder: Would holding my nose unobtrusively on Seder night
make the maror
indistinguishable from kohlrabi?)
SOME people’s response to odors
is so well developed as to seem uncanny.
“I told my husband that I
smelled humidity in the cupboard below the kitchen sink,” a friend recounted,
“and asked him to find the leak. ‘There isn’t a leak,’ he said, after carefully
“An hour later,” she said, “the pipe
PHEROMONES, chemicals released by humans and other animals, are
thought to play a role in sexual attraction, with the nose picking up their
Scientists believe the nasal grooves running from the nostrils to
the corners of the mouth are pheromone-rich sites, and that romantic kissing
came about to detect these pheromones.
“Our sense of smell still plays an
important role in helping us choose a mate,” says the UK’s Pearce, adding that
“as babies, we identify our parents by their smell. That’s how a newborn finds
its mother’s breast.”
DOGS’ highly developed sense of smell is so well
known that we treat it as commonplace.
Police forces use tracking and
chasing dogs for manhunts and to detect border breaches, and search and rescue
dogs are routinely used to find people in collapsed buildings.
has a canine unit called Oketz that trains dogs to sniff out weapons, ammunition
And a friend told me of a recent occasion at a foreign
airport where the money pouch he was wearing became – to his extreme
discomfiture – an object of intense interest to a dog likely trained to catch
international money-launderers or drug smugglers.
What may not be so
widely known is that compared to the 40,000,000 olfactory receptors in the human
nose, a German shepherd, for example, has about two billion.
man’s best friend, when suitably deployed, rather less accommodating to
criminals and terrorists.
A PERSON can lose his or her sense of smell
through accident or illness, and in such cases, it may be partially restored.
But some individuals are congenitally anosmic – that is, they were born without
a sense of smell.
Like Lucy Mangan, writing about the considerable
challenges of “Scents and sensitivity” in Britain’s Guardian
“I had enough sense,” she writes, “to buy a smoke alarm, but
it wasn’t until my sister called round and nearly collapsed from the smell of a
hob burner I had accidentally switched on that I realized I needed something
that would alert me aurally to gas leaks before I blew up the
“A few bouts of food poisoning alerted me to the fact that I
can eat, unperturbed, food which would cause those with functioning nasal
passages to don HazMat suits and call in the public health
And as for clothing, “I have to operate a strict rota and
wash everything after I’ve worn it once.”
On the plus side, she points
out, she is an excellent babysitter, since she “can’t smell nappies [diapers] or
any of the preliminary gases that tell you something spectacular is on its
Ending on that odor-free note, she cites an ex-suitor, who told her
wistfully: “You were the best girlfriend in the world. You let me bring curry
home from the pub every night, and I could fart as much as I
BEYOND the absorbing nature of noses and the compelling role
their activity plays in our lives, is there a message here? I think there is,
and perhaps it’s this: The next time someone admonishes us to “Wake up and smell
the coffee,” we should hold back our irritation and just be grateful – that we