“The nose knows” But what does it know? A lot, oh yes, a lot. You have probably experienced a waft of scent transporting you to another time and place. Smell is already quite acute at birth, logging important information, learning about who is who and what is safe and what to be on alert for. Scent is formed from a combination of chemicals in the air that stimulate the billions of tiny hairs cells in the bridge of the nose and activating nerve networks for every smell known to humans. Of course, you may not know a particular smell in words or descriptive labels or chemical names but you know it in feeling, perception and unconscious responses.
I am so fascinated by the sense of smell; maybe because it is so primitive, so essential. I love learning about what is foundational, biologically, evolutionarily. Smell has direct access to the hippocampus, the brain area involved in memory formation. There by taking a more direct route to perception than the other senses that all pass through the thalamus for routing information. It seems that smell was developed at a much earlier stage in evolution, as so essential for survival. As modern humans we do not give it the full respect and attention that our four legged friends do. In fact we associate it with being uncouth and animal like.
Our American culture is very smell phobic, covering or trying to eliminate body odor of any kind. Making sure our environments, body products, cleaning supplies are pleasant and/or non-offensive. The tactic to make everything smell like vanilla or chocolate or fruit is at best limiting and boring. But in the crusade to make things smell good, excess is often the result and smell sensitive people have reactions of overwhelm, triggering headaches or nausea.
I would say our culture underutilizes our olfactory abilities. Some forms of medicine require the physician to identify their patient’s odor as a key component of the diagnostic procedure. “The Nose” is the most important position held in perfume manufacture, this is the person who fine tunes the formulas for the perfect combination of fragrances. Then there is the love apple story, a woman would carry a small apple between her breasts for weeks and then send it to her lover who could then carry and inhale the essence of her.
Smell alerts us to danger, animals, smoke, spoiled food, anything in the environment that we need to know about. All of us can register the smell of fear and some people have an awareness of it as odor. Others call it the smell of fear but feel it as a sensation; a sensation which is probably a response to perceiving the chemicals in the air. I had an old farmer friend who said he lost his sense of smell after working for years putting up silage. Silage is fermented hay or grains and extremely pungent. He said he would get an initial hint of any smell and then it would be gone. I think his brain learned to stop smelling; unfortunately this unconscious learning didn’t turn off just the silage but every odor after its initial perception. As a toddler, my son actively inhaled when in the arms of someone he loved and had not seen for a long time. Without direct prompting he learned to downplay his acute sense of smell because it is not a trait our polite society wants to acknowledge. But he still has it. Sometime recently he asked if the friend’s house we went to was one he had been at as a small child, because he remembers the smell of it as belonging to a house we visited years ago.
One developmental expert suggests we massage the bridge of the nose to get those hair cells stimulated and assist in learning something we would like to remember. It’s worth a try before studying what is important to us. We know sensory stimulation through movement is a great warm up for learning so why wouldn’t stimulating smell, which has a direct route to memory, be a great learning aid as well.
Right left brain differentiation and activation through all sensory input is fascinating; and up to eighty percent of the energy used by the nervous system is taken up in sensory processing. Smell is just one of the most fascinating. Smell to the right nostril stimulates the right brain and left nostril to left brain, unlike the rest of the body’s cross lateral connection wiring where right controls and inputs left and vice versa. That’s just one more way smell follows different rules. If we want to stimulate the temporal left brain then inhale chocolate, lavender, rose, strawberry, banana (among others). Or for the right temporal lobe try black pepper, coffee, peppermint, lime, eucalyptus, fish oil to the right nostril. I’ve just learned about this and am excited to play with it, noticing what effects I will perceive. So wake up and smell the coffee; and make sure your left nostril is plugged.
There are yogic breathing techniques that emphasize alternate nostril use. When I do them I feel more alert and present; ready but not keyed up. The one I learned starts and ends with the left nostril. I did read once that left nostril breathing stimulates a parasympathetic response; it has a calming effect (I’m sorry I can’t find the source). Yet we do use the left brain frontal lobes to calm an overwrought nervous system. And the right brain is more active in distress learning and distress memory. But that’s just one aspect of hemispheric differentiation; nothing is simply done in one brain region or hemisphere. I just might be trying to put things in an order that may not be directly causal but it is provocative to dive into the possibilities and wonder about the interrelationships of our magnificent sensory capabilities.