Intimacy and Power of Scents

Proust does a masterful job at describing the vivid memories and emotions that can be conjured up by smells and taste. We can relate to his story because we’ve all had similar experiences in our own lives. Each of us has an intimate collection of scents that are able trigger powerful emotional responses and memories. Every time I smell clove cigarettes I am transported back over 15 years to my last year of high school in Indonesia.

Why are smells more intimate and emotionally powerful then our other senses? What role does our physiology play in this difference? How does the nature of sounds, sights, smells, tastes and touches impact this difference?

From a physiological perspective we know that the olfactory nerve is intimately connected to the limbic system and it also passes directly to the allocortext rather than going through other structures first. The limbic system strongly influences our emotional behavior. This physiological link definitely plays an important role in the manner in which we experience smells.

What about the nature of smell has led us to treat it in this special manner from an evolutionary standpoint? How does the nature of smell compare to the nature of sights, sounds, tastes and touches (current ones only for now)?

Let’s start by looking at the physicality of different types of sensory inputs. Sights and sounds are created by the interplay of wavelengths of various different frequencies. These types of senses enable us to interact with the world beyond our direct physical grasp. We can see things that are far away in front of us with our eyes, and we can situate happenings within our 3-dimensional world using our ears.

Smell, taste and touch are more physical. This by itself makes them more intimate than sights and sounds. Our sense of smell is created when microscopic particles bind to receptors in our nasal tract. Tastes are sensed in a similar manner. Our sense of touch is activate when our body encounters another object or force. Smells are the least physical of these senses.  In a way they enable us to taste things without actually tasting them (though in actuality we are tasting it since physical particles from that object are attaching themselves to our olfactory receptors).

More thoughts are trying to spill out but they are becoming increasingly incoherent. So I’ll call it a night.

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