Sense of smell opens doors
Aristotle tells us that there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses, an ancient piece of pedagogy that still applies. Of all the senses, the wondrous gift of smell is the most undervalued tool in learning. The olfactory bulb is a structure of the limbic system, a very ancient part of the brain.
Smell is the quintessential existential sense. It is 10,000 times more sensitive than any other sense, and recognition of smell is immediate. Modern electronic advances cannot re-create the immediacy and learning of the sense of smell.
“People do not smell like they once did,” said Father John, a vowed hermit living in the hills of Vermont. “Close your eyes and take a deep smell.”
I closed my eyes and blocked my ears, and in the silent moment my brain opened to an avalanche of smells: tomato, rhubarb, McIntosh apple, cut grass, pine, goldenrod.
The olfactory system has direct connection to memory; being open to what you smell can awaken memories.
In one phase of my boyhood, I was taken with the lives of the saints: Francis Xavier, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Martin de Pores — holy names of holy men who gave their lives to God. All of them, the pious biographies stated, died in “the odor of sanctity.” Could you smell saintliness? Was that peculiarly clean antiseptic smell that seemed to surround every nun in our school an olfactory halo?
Today, a half century later, perfume-less soap in public restrooms brings holiness to mind. Such is the magical enduring power of olfaction.
The seasons of a Catholic childhood: the black dust of Ash Wednesday, lilies at Easter, roses at May crowning, unlit candles crossed at the neck on St. Blaise Day, evergreens and wet wool mittens in winter, and the projected fragrance onto the ever-so-weird liturgical vestments.
Eighth-grade superiority, high school bravado, the questioning mind, faking the cynical to appear bright, all tried in turn, but failed to drown the aromatic lessons of my search for the spiritual. Much of what I heard, read and saw vanished, while the teachings of the nose lingered.
The family smells of childhood, too, last a lifetime. Rubbing my peach fuzz, I would smell my father’s shaving mug and longingly yearn for black visible whiskers, my very own beard, to hurry up.
The crisp smell of clear cellophane from a White Owl reassembles an entire evening, complete with what my father wore and said. The one-of-a kind smell of oilcloth brings family meals to mind, the sweet smell of strawberry shortcake and the vanilla in the whipped cream, apple pie, warm cocoa after skating. Each of these regresses me to the full life of boyhood, with womblike comfort.
How many others are there? Rubbing alcohol, cod liver oil, the fresh smell of clothes hung out to dry, the dampness of our house returning from a trip, mittens melting over the register of our coal furnace, the exciting sound/smell of leaves crinkling underfoot, the myriad aromas of my mother’s kitchen warming our welcome from a shivering winter’s early darkness.
We smell before we see and after we are no longer able to hear and move. Stimulate the senses, fill the mind, satiate the life, pet your olfactory bulb.
The unpleasant smells remain as well. I dreaded rain on a summer day, the sudden lightning and thunder that stopped play in mid-inning, closed swimming holes, dampened the day and spirits at their peak. At the first glint of returning sun, we would run outside headlong into the fierce smell of burning ozone. This fragrance is called petrichor, from the Greek “petra,” rock, and “ichor,” the fluid that runs in veins of the gods. At times I thought I could see petrichor rising from the street, announcing, “The bad is over. Come out and play.” Take in the fragrance of the gods.
That euphoria still happens. Coming outdoors after a storm the fragrance rushed upon me once more, and it stayed with me all the way home. Inside the front door, I felt the smell of hot chocolate.
Ray Lovett is a psychotherapist in Dorset specializing in treating couples.