In My Own Write: Ahhhroma!

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 can.

By
April 12, 2011 23:36
Al Pacino in 'Scent of a Woman'

Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman _311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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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?

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Well, I 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 before.

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.

I 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 disappointed.

‘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 can’t.”

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Her own most vivid olfactory experience occurred on her honeymoon several decades ago, and still contains an element of mystery.

“We went 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 note.

“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 Shabbats past.”

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.

In a 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 nostril.

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 mystery.

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 odors.”

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.

That 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 smell.

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 nuance.”

(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 investigating.

“An hour later,” she said, “the pipe burst.”

PHEROMONES, chemicals released by humans and other animals, are thought to play a role in sexual attraction, with the nose picking up their scent.

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.

The IDF has a canine unit called Oketz that trains dogs to sniff out weapons, ammunition and explosives.

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.

Which makes 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 newspaper.

“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 street...

“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 authorities.”

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 way.”

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 liked.”

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 can.

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