Out of the five senses we rely on, smell gets the least amount of attention. Nobody talks about it much and we just seem to take it for granted. And yet we all have a relationship to smells that is individual and unique.
Just imagine what the world would be like without any scents: Those familiar smells that link us to each other, such that you can close your eyes and know when your parent, or lover, or child, or even your pet is in the same room, would be non-existent — and sorely missed.
However, one advantage would be that nobody would have to suffer other people’s unpleasant body odour. From stale sweat to stinky feet, from bad breath to overwhelming perfumes, from last night’s boozefest to the remnants of a smoking lounge — none of these offensive smells would have a negative effect.
Another advantage: Pregnant women would suffer that much less — for some, it’s the smell of fish; for me, it was the strong, fleshy odours of a butcher’s shop that would send me running for the door, gasping for fresh air.
And another: The stench of rotting fish washed up from a Red Tide would no longer be a deterrent to travellers heading south for a beach vacation.
But, for me, the disadvantages far outweigh the suffering. Imagine not being able to smell the sweet, heavy aroma of puppy breath; or the delicious scent of your newborn babe. What would the world be like without the hot, homey aroma that wafts up from freshly baked bread, cookies or cakes?
I know I’d miss the fresh, clean scent of newly mown grass on an early summer’s morn; or the salt-infused air that wafts in from the sea.
So why am I so interested in the olfactory sense? Well, here it is: Recently, I was struck by how different smells can so drastically affect our mood. For example, the other morning I dropped my child off at preschool and the building was rancid with the stale stench of sweaty men. There must have been some gathering in the building the night before. It made my mood heavy for several hours.
The day before, I was in line at the deli counter, when I actually had to cross to the other side of the store and wait for a woman to leave. Her clothes, hair, everything reeked of stale cigarette smoke. For some reason, it made me feel jittery. Maybe I’m just not accepting of nicotine bombardment — especially in a food store.
Think of what smells attract and repel you. Think of the people you love and how their body smells are never quite as offending as those of strangers.
With so many different aromas and odours swirling around us all the time, isn’t Mother Nature clever to have made us relate to our sense of smell in such a personal way?