Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel. – Oliver Wendell Holmes
By Amelia Buckley
It’s a real estate cliché to bake cookies in a home before an open house. It’s not that we can’t resist the taste of a fresh-baked chocolate chip treat, it’s because the smell of baking can powerfully trigger feelings of nostalgia. If the smell of a house takes you back to lazy Saturdays at your grandmother’s house or holidays as a child, a place imbued with the aromas of baking can instantly feel like home.
An underrated sense
The sense of smell is tremendously valuable but often overlooked. Not only is it a chief component of taste, but it holds the key to our emotions. It is a primary factor in memory and can manipulate our feelings in a way that sight or sound can’t quite do.
We each have different aromas that pull us back to moments of heightened emotion. For me, it’s the smell of campfires and sun-soaked pine trees that draws me to happy days backpacking with my family. For others, it might be the scent of the ocean, the salty breeze and dusky sand, that brings back the delicious moment of a first kiss, or maybe a waft of freshly cut grass that returns one to a backyard afternoon playing tag with best friends. Smell not only has the power to evoke happy memories, but any moment of intense emotion. The whiff of a cigarette might remind one of an abusive uncle, and bring fear to the forefront, just as quickly as joy. The power of our sense of smell is its potent immediacy: back to times of sadness, joy, excitement, or inner reflection.
Loss of smell and taste have been listed as a common symptom of COVID-19; in some cases it’s one of the first symptoms of the disease. Coupled with articles about “super sniffers” that made headlines early this year, we’ve been paying more attention to this underrated sense here at the Optimist Daily. Loss of smell may sound like no big deal, but if you’ve ever experienced a bad common cold, you know that loss of smell can feel frustrating, make food bland, and inexplicably disconnect one from the rest of the world. This week we celebrate our sniffers with an Ode to Smell, and take a deeper dive into our most underrated sense.
Honed to smell danger
Although not quite at the level of dogs or bears, humans have an incredible ability to sniff out tiny molecular changes in our environment. Humans can sense the presence of particular odorants (smelly molecules) in dilutions of less than one part in several billion parts of air. Our sense of smell is uniquely crafted through our genetics and our experiences. Some smells, like smoke or rotten food, trigger a negative response in all of us as our noses are trained to smell out danger. Our sense of smell is intertwined with our fight or flight instinct. Indole, a compound in coffee, is undetectable to most of us, but to pregnant women, it has a strong bitter smell which alerts expectant mothers to steer clear of this potential hazard. (Thanks Mom!) Though for many of the rest of us, the wonderful bouquet of freshly brewed coffee is the only thing that gets us out of bed!
Sniffing out disease
Some remarkable humans even have a life-saving sense of smell. When Joy Milne started smelling a different odor on her husband, she assumed it was part of life’s natural course. Years later, as Joy sat in a Parkinson’s support group with her husband, she realized that she had been smelling the presence of disease in his body a decade before his official diagnosis.
“I’m in a tiny tiny branch of the population somewhere between a dog and a human,” says Joy.
Joy has since participated in studies where she discovered she can also smell out Alzheimer’s and certain types of cancer. In one experiment at the Situ Foundation in Chico, she had a 100 percent success rate in smelling the difference between masks worn by cancer patients and those worn by healthy individuals. Her abilities are believed to be linked to biomarkers in sebum, the oily secretion that keeps our skin and hair lubricated. People with Parkinson’s are known to secrete a higher amount of sebum with a slightly different composition.
A couple of weeks ago we shared a story about dogs being trained to sniff out COVID-19. The potential for smell detection of diseases is a budding field, with dogs also trained to sniff out cancers, kidney disease, and other ailments. The potential for human “super sniffers” to be the ones smelling out the diseases is revolutionary. In the meantime, let’s hope those labradors get trained quickly, and add to the labs being used around the world to help us track disease.
Medicine and memory
In addition to COVID-19, Alzheimer’s can also manifest in loss of smell. This brings up the unique correlation between smell and memory. Smell is one of the senses most strongly linked to memory. Unlike sight, smell is hard to fool. Although we may not be able to describe a smell as vividly as something we see, smells are deeply ingrained in our memories and associated with very specific times in our lives. The loss of smell and memory both associated with Alzheimer’s could be a profound factor in treating the disease.
Scents-ing our way through life
We unconsciously acknowledge the importance of smell in our daily lives in a hundred different ways. Choosing a perfume, picking a brand of washing detergent, deciding what to eat for lunch, and even falling for a romantic partner all rely on our noses. Pheromones, unique individual chemicals secreted by our bodies, smell different in everyone, and each of our unique noses find them differently attractive. The particular interaction between one person’s scent and another person’s nose is one of the primary factors in romantic attraction. Our dependence on smell also helps fuel the $25 billion scented products industry in the United States.
One of those scented products that may evoke strong memories for us is the a sudden whiff of our mothers’ usual perfume, or even just the particular brand of soap she used to wash her face. For me, a light scent of lavender reminds me of hugging my mom after she returned from a long day of work or had me sit on a kitchen stool while she delicately braided my hair. Suddenly I feel safe and comforted.
This Mother’s Day, many of us will be celebrating with our moms virtually. Others may be celebrating their mothers who have passed away. Although we may not be able to be physically close to our moms this year, we can use aromas to feel emotionally connected. Reflect back on your happiest memories with your own mother. In bringing these reflections to mind, don’t just visualize the location, but also ask yourself “What did it smell like?” and let those scents flood in to help enliven that memory. Cooking dishes from our childhood, picking some of our mom’s favorite flowers, or taking a walk somewhere you adventured as a child may be surprisingly effective for curing your quarantine homesickness.
In this Great Pause we are all sharing, it’s time to stop and smell the roses.
About the Author:
Amelia Buckley is a staff writer for the Optimist Daily and pursuing her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As a global studies major and lover of the outdoors, Amelia is passionate about crafting stories that focus on critical global issues that impact our environment and natural spaces.