The Perfumed Garden of Sensory Delight
Hungarian folk tales often feature a hero who sets off in search of a princess abducted by a many-headed dragon. After overcoming a number of difficulties he arrives to the dragon’s castle where the princess is held prisoner. She hides him in the castle, but in vain because the dragon invariably declares upon arrival: “I perceive a strange human smell!” The hero has to come out and engage in a duel.
Olfaction is perhaps our oldest sense organ, and it is quite special. It is the only sensory channel that bypasses the thalamus, (a kind of switchboard in the brain), directly entering the cerebral cortex. When you smell smoke, you don't engage in philosophical speculation but drop whatever you were doing and start looking for the source of the dangerous news. Olfaction is also linked to other brain areas, including emotions. Odours are known to instantly bring back memories.
There is quite a bit of talk about dogs and wild animals having a sensational sense of smell. Since we don’t measure up to that, we tend to overlook the fact that our sense of smell is still commendable. School, based on a 1927 study, teaches that humans can distinguish 10,000 odours, while more recent studies have shown that it’s actually more like a trillion.
The difference is only eight zeroes, in other words nothing. Children born blind and deaf can discern a strange person entering the room by their smell. Could we do the same if we paid more attention to this sensory organ?
Odours bring a wealth of information from a safe distance, even in total darkness. Prey animals can detect the predator in the forest, and vice versa. Predators can also avoid each other: it is smarter to maintain a distance from another big-toothed, big-clawed creature. It's also more adaptive to detect nasty stuff from afar than when it's already in your mouth. One time I was offered amphetamine (speed). I was curious about the effects, but instinctively sniffed the whitish, crystal-like stuff first. "I don't want that thing!" my body protested violently. I may be missing an experience, but I think our bodies are worth listening to. How people can actually swallow the additive-smelling stuff served in fast-food places is a mystery to me.
Sodium nitrite, E250, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Your nose can protect your physical being without you ever realizing it. When you avoid certain places for no rational reason, one factor may be their smell. You don’t even consciously notice the odour, you simply feel like checking out another street thereby cleverly avoiding the one where the explosives are.
Even when you say no to a tempting offer, the reason may be the other person's suspicious scent. Emotions have an odour that has an effect on people. Here’s a question for men: Have you ever been attacked coming back from a woman you were courting? It has happened to me several times. You're walking down the street when a guy comes up to you and hurls a torrent of hateful words at you for no reason at all. One possible explanation could be the cloud of male pheromones you carry, unconsciously provoking the other man. We think we are creatures of culture, and for some that is true. But our biological being is a few billion years older and a bit stronger.
Unlike the smell of a stranger, the smell of home, of familiar people, is comforting. And that of the opposite sex is attractive, according to classic psychological experiments. In animals, the smell of ovulation attracts the male. While we consciously try all sorts of birth control methods, the sexual attraction of ovulating females also seems to be true for humans. Olfaction can play a significant unconscious role in mate selection. What is more it can influence relations between ethnic groups. Black Africans, Far Easterners, Caucasians have their distinct smells, which in individual cases can serve as an exotic attraction, or, on the level of groups of people may also be a source of conflict.
While unconsciously we do notice human odours, in modern society we tend to suppress our olfactory cues. Why? The very subject is not cool. Why is it that when we think of the pheromones of our fellow humans, we think of stenches, not perfumes? When you spend days in nature, the exhaust fumes of a single car can be suffocating upon return. Yet in the city you are surrounded by those gases all the time, hardly even noticing. What has happened to human consciousness that we regard deadly fumes as normal, while harmless, natural odours are considered a disgrace? The hairs in your armpits and pubic area are there in order to retain the smell of your pheromones produced by special glands. That's why those hairs grow once you reach puberty. Earlier you have the sweet smell of a baby or child, which, according to researchers, triggers feelings of attachment and contentment in adults.
The Bible tells us that we began to be ashamed of ourselves long ago, to cover up our real selves with clothes and artificial smells. Have we become liars? Or do so many of us live together in cities that all that stimuli would be too much and it would be difficult to maintain peace in society? Today, new factors have entered the scene, such as the cosmetics industry, which does its best to make us feel uncomfortable in our bodies, so it can sell all that goo made from crude oil.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” — says Marcellus in Hamlet. But not only in Denmark. Soon after we had defected to Germany towards the end of the so-called communist era, my mother asked me: Have you noticed that every passing woman carries a cloud of cosmetic smell? The tang was really weird to us, coming from a place where the obligatory morning make-up didn’t yet exist. Only old ladies posing as young were accompanied by a haze of cosmetic odours. This soon changed and of course the other half of humanity couldn't go to waste — by now men are also targets of the cosmetics vultures.
Olfaction has a lot of untapped potential. At the start of the Covid outbreak, dogs in Finland and elsewhere were trained to sniff out infected people. An obvious, ingenious, cheap and infallible solution. Although financial and other considerations did not allow this method to be widely used, the potential is there. Using various animal capabilities is a fascinating topic in its own right, but for now it is our own sense of smell that is on the table. Literally, as taste is supplemented by smell. You probably have experienced it yourself when you had a cold and the food tasted like paper.
It’s so nice when the aromas come back! If they do. There was this virus, for example... At least it made us aware of the importance of olfaction. Speaking of experiments, can you sniff out which piece of clothing belongs to which member of your family? You close your eyes, someone takes the clothes ready to be washed one by one and holds them in front of your nose. You are not allowed to touch the clothes, only smell them. The methodology is not exactly scientific, as even the rustling of the clothes can carry information, but it can be quite interesting.
An old fantasy of mine is to get a radiation meter and go examining the world. But it would require an instrument, and I never got to the point of actually making a trip to the store to get another object. However, we all possess a consciously under-utilised sense organ right in our face. You don't have to tell anyone if you get the urge to do exciting experiments with it.
And why is the smell of flowers pleasant? It makes sense for insects to be attracted to their food source, but we don't live on nectar. I have a very un-scientific explanation for this phenomenon — I’ll tell you if you can keep a secret. The reason may be the same why mountains are beautiful, bunny fur is silky to the touch and the song of nightingales is delightful. Because the universe is a good place.
Christians would put it the following way: the heavenly Father loves us. Although I don’t think of the creative force as an old man with a beard, we, in some sense, are children of the Universe. Us, humans, or ravens playing in the wind, or lime trees reaching towards the sun. Here, in Central Europe, the air is full of their scent right now.