Sense of smell
You smell things with your nose. Each time you breathe in, new scent
particles brush past the nasal mucosa deep inside your nose. The nasal
mucosa are connected directly with your brain by a short nerve, so that
perceive scents almost immediately. It is so fast that you can be taken
surprise when you suddenly smell something. You cannot block out scents
without holding your breath, which you can never do for long. When you
have been exposed to a scent for a while, you stop noticing it, nor
notice a gradual strengthening of the scent. You only notice it if you
away from it for a while and then come back to it. In that case, you
will probably be amazed that you did
not notice it before.
This can be illustrated by the following example. Once, my team and I
had to clean the small intestines of
a cow. In this procedure, the intestinal contents are slowly pushed out
of the intestines. Even as the
volume of drained intestinal content -- and thus the smell --
increased, we were hardly aware of the
stench in which we were working. At some point we went for a tea break
and only then, in the clean air
did we notice the awful smell on our hands and clothing. When we went
back to work, the stench was
almost unbearable, but after a few minutes we were again oblivious to
it. It is possible for a strong smell
to cause nausea. In that case, you remain focused on the smell and
continue to perceive it.
Since you have to keep breathing, you cannot help but perceive scents.
There is no way to block them out.
You perceive scent immediately, and classify it as distasteful or
tasteful, pleasant or unpleasant, vile or
attractive. Scent strongly influences your
judgment. Your experience tells you that bad
things or things that you dislike always smell.
Volcanoes, rotting food and toxic substances all
have a foul smell. Natural substances that are
good for you are not perceived as smelling bad.
In this way, your sense of smell forms one of
the foundations of your moral judgment. Your
sense of smell thus helps you to distinguish
between good and evil.
People can distinguish about 2000 scents, from
roses and camomile to the smell of horses,
goats and cows; from milk, wine, cola and beer
to wood, cement, asphalt and stone and so on.
You recognise the scent of a fresh spring day, or
a scorching summer afternoon. You can
distinguish the particular smell of a Tuscan
village, a peat bog, a book-lined study, or a
sick-bay. You can also smell someone’s mood:
someone who is afraid emanates different
scent particles than someone who is at ease.
You respond to all these smells, usually without
being conscious of it.
Observations of smell differ from other observations of, for example,
taste and sound because scents are
difficult to categorise and describe. Scents are often described by
association: the smell of roses, of
blueberries, of fresh fruit, of grease. Or people might say: this
reminds me of a head of lettuce, or of an
old shoe, or of grandma’s house. Smells can be described by
using other observations which are
associated with the smell. It is possible to determine the chemical
composition of a scent, and in many
cases it can be synthesised. Many of our perfumes and artificial scents
(often called flavourings) are made
Smells can bring back memories suddenly and strongly. You might be
walking along a street when a
familiar smell suddenly takes you right back to the past, and to the
occasion that you smelt it before. For
a moment, you are submerged by memories. This often happens without
being consciously aware of
having perceived the smell. Scents and smells can affect you more
strongly in this way than observations
made with other senses.
Our sense of smell is quite primitive compared to that of animals. A
dog’s sense of smell is a million times
more sensitive than ours. A dog has no trouble smelling the fear of a
passer-by and responds directly.
Because of the short reaction time, instinct is closely connected to
the sense of smell. An animal’s
behaviour is thus determined to a large degree by what it smells. If
your sense of smell was as good as an
animal’s, you would constantly be making strong judgments and
be incapable of more objective
observation. Your sensitivity to scents would leave no scope for a
personal response, and your thoughts
would be more instinctive. As a result, you would be at the mercy of
what your sense of smell told you.
organ in the nose. The olfactory nerves in
the nasal mucosa pass through the ethmoid bones directly to the
Select some food and drinks, and describe their scent. When you have
finished, take a short break,
then smell them again and record any judgments they provoked. Did they
arouse any memories? If
so, describe them.
Go to a place in the woods, or in a barn or field, and describe what
you smell. Which smells do you
notice straight away, and which do you only become aware of after some
time? What sort of
judgments do you make?
Smell the different types of animal feed in a barn. Describe the smells
and also describe your first
impression of them (tasty, disgusting, etc.). You can do this exercise
with other objects, too, such as
plants, animals, foods, textiles, detergents and so on.