Use your nose

August 31st, 2014

I've always suspected that smelling's gotten a bad rap. It's even right there in the verbiage available to describe it; tasting, seeing, hearing, and feeling have no outright negative connotations, but smelling could just as well mean "to stink" as "to experience scent". Smelling is also neglected as a point of sensory praxis. Sure, there's the "stop and smell the roses" adage, but it's not too often taken literally, and what's worse, commercial parfumerie inundates people with the notion that the olfactory equivalent of Vegas blinkenlichten is the final word on what smells good. When's the last time you went to a department store and were asked if you'd like to sample having your retinas bleached? The umbrella of "entertainment" offers tasting menus, spectacles, concerts, sports, massages of various plotlines, but where are the smelling tours, the scent extravaganzas? At best smelling comes as a mostly unnoticed and unappreciated by-product of the indulgence of some other sensory inclination.

This neglect isn't the only thing that would seem to separate smelling from the other senses. As input devices for the brain, sensory organs send data along their respective neural pathways in the peripheral nervous system; data which arrives at a ganglion, a middleman for our purposes, before it can travel to the central nervous system. This isn't the case in the course of smelling. The olfactory epithelium1, slightly behind and above the nostrils, transmits data directly to the brain without the need for interfacing with a ganglion. That the the process of smelling is thusly streamlined as compared to the perception of other sensory stimuli is interesting medically, as the swift and unfettered delivery of whatever therapies is prized. I'm not aware of any definitive evidence either established or sought without success, but while the cogs turn it's something to sniff on.

While you may never be able to inhale an anti-epileptic, though, you can very well make greater use of your sense of smell. Hopefully you're not stuck in a city that stinks, but even the most congested of places is bound to offer an occasional pleasant reprieve. Smell flowers when you find them. Walk a little more slowly and breathe in the scent of roasting nuts from a street vendor. Visit a spice shop and sample some things you've never heard of. There's a lot more to the life of the nose than cups of coffee, strips of bacon, and some guy's gnarly BO on the bus. Like any other sense, smelling acquires greater ability to distinguish with practice, and doing it consciously will produce greater refinement.


  1. Anyone wanting to test their mettle against a giant tidalwave of squeamishness is invited to take a gander at this item. It's possibly the most objectionable looking thing I've ever seen dissected. []

7 Responses to “Use your nose”

  1. Smelling is, physiologically, quite the same process as tasting - which is why perhaps it's lumped in there. But while at it : what's the difference between a noseologist and an oenologist ?

  2. han@thewhet says:

    An oenologist has a bigger vocabulary. :D

    Would you say tasting and smelling being "the same process" fits beyond a particularly general (hah!) description? I mean, smell may be a part of tasting, but is tasting a part of smelling (to the same degree)? Does smelling involve papillae? Must the nose picket for his own little place in the sun?!

  3. comment to:

    In addition to spice shops, no olfactory tourist should neglect second-hand book shops. What variety!

    When I was a boy, I could nearly always tell where I was, even blindfolded, by smell. Even room to room, not to mention house to house, the subtle smells always differed. No two carpets had the same smell.

    But I can't quite do this any more. And I've always wondered why no one has seen it fit to produce 'eyeglasses for the nose.' This would be a relatively simple task - same principle at work as in the familiar gas centrifuges where isotopes of uranium are separated - but in miniature. It needn't be any larger than an ordinary referee's
    whistle (not including the power source) and would closely resemble it geometrically.

  4. @hanbot

    An oenologist has a bigger vocabulary.

    You mean a vestibulary vocabulary ?

    Does smelling involve papillae?

    Yes, fundamentally the same cells and fundamentally the same wet process to analyze ions in solution.


    In addition to spice shops, no olfactory tourist should neglect second-hand book shops. What variety!

    Yeah, anything from tuberculosis to what have you can be found on the pages of sufficiently old books.

  5. @MP

    Even though technically 'doesn't happen,' I always felt more than a bit uneasy flipping through the stacks at my old employer's vast 'tropical medicine' library...

    Don't lick your fingers in the 'organophosphates of the world' collection either.

  6. You recall the great book on humour kept in that Ligurian abbey ...

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