If you had to give up one of your five senses, which would you choose?
I’m speaking of the traditional five we humans possess with some (but in some cases no) degree of functionality. Which one would you find most difficult to part with?
Your sense of taste? Sight? Smell? Touch? Hearing?
Many of you may already know the answer to this. Maybe you would relish the chance to never again force down Auntie Mabel’s mock meatloaf soufflé. Perhaps one more hour of listening to Junior practice Bach’s Fugue in F flarp is more than you can stand. And your world might be slightly more bearable if, when you opened the door to your teenage daughter’s bedroom, you were not greeted with a view of everything it contained strewn about her bed, the lampshades and every square inch of the expensive plush carpeting you were coerced into believing she desperately needed to fulfill her ideal living conditions, capable of propelling her academic aptitude through the roof as she judiciously studied upon it.
For me the answer is simple: I would give up everything else as long as I could keep my sense of smell.
Although nothing remarkable to behold—no profoundly protuberant schnoz of Groucho Marx status, no perky, upturned Tinkerbelle snippet cutely pinched in the middle of my face–it is by far my favorite bodily feature.
Our sense of smell is particularly mysterious. And as I’ve come to find out, an action that still continues to befuddle some scientists. I’ll do my best to explain—in crude fashion—why this is so.
There is more than one belief as to how we perceive smell. A widely accepted theory is that floating molecules are brought into direct contact with olfactory receptors (a postage stamp sized patch of neurons way in the back where your nose and throat meet), and those receptors decode the combination of molecules by SHAPE and supply your brain with an answer that suggests the name of whatever substance you inhaled. (Put six carbon, ten hydrogen and one oxygen atoms together— cis-3-hexenal—and the light bulb in your brain sends up a flare shouting, “Fresh cut grass!”)
Imagine closing your eyes and being handed a banana. Likely you’d identify the fruit simply by its shape and feel—the smooth skin, the slight pliancy, its curvature, the dry, sharp stem—rather than having to peel it, sniff it, view it, or taste it for further confirmation. The architecture is a specifically designed puzzle piece that fits into one particular enzyme receptor. Every molecule has a distinctive combination of bumps, grooves, ruts or ridges, and its partner, the enzyme receptor, identifies it exactly. It’s a shape code.
A not as widely accepted hypothesis (and one that is scoffed at in some labs) is that smell is not shape, but SOUND. Molecules quiver with vibration and, in a sense, sing. A rather hefty and unwieldy scientific instrument known as a spectroscope is capable of identifying those notes and will easily recognize each molecule by its tune, which brings us to the uncomfortable conclusion that we all have our very own spectroscope jammed up inside our noses.
I told you my explanations would be inept, but I thought it necessary to take a crack at it.
Fascinating science aside, and the argument which names you as either a “shapist” or a “vibrationist,” the nose is wholly remarkable in that it can communicate vital information, allow deeply imbedded memories to resurface and, propel us into every emotional state known to human beings. With just a simple sniff.
Bring a ripened wedge of brie to your nose and you are transported back to your youthful summers working on a dairy farm when you were desperate to save up enough money for a new bicycle.
Walk into your basement and recognize the whiff of sulfurous “rotten egg” and you’ll flip a U-ey, head outdoors and toward the nearest phone to call your gas company regarding a dangerous leak.
Accidentally burn the sugar you’re caramelizing on the stovetop and you’re awash with memories of summer camp, log fires and gooey s’mores.
The jury is still out regarding whether or not our human noses can detect pheromones and the messages attached to them, but scent psychologists suggest it would certainly explain a lot of eyebrow raising relationships that befuddle common sense.
To be fair, your sense of smell is intricately tied to your ability to taste. Place a bowl of jelly beans before you and pinch your nose shut.
Select a bean without peeking at its color. Place it in your mouth and begin to chew. I challenge you to identify its flavor. It’s sweet. There’s texture. But until you release the hold on your nose and breathe in and out, you’ve got bubkes. Nothing.
Imagine walking into a kitchen on a crisp, fall day and missing the cloud of cinnamon and butter over a newly emerging sizzling apple pie from the oven.
Picture yourself pulling open the door of the local mudhouse and never again embracing the dark, chocolaty scent of deeply roasted coffee beans.
Envision a trip to the seaside and not finding your head filled with a wind that carries the salt-crusted briny ocean and the clean fragrance of deep sea creatures.
Did you know that your nose is capable of recognizing around 10,000 odor molecules?
When I think about how many sounds my ears can pick up, it usually varies between those of hungry animals or grousing teenagers. Everything else gets washed out. When I take my eyes off of my computer screen and look around, I see mainly hungry animals or grousing teenagers. I’m fairly certain that if all this keeps up, I will shortly be snapping with sharpened fangs at said animals or teenagers and will therefore be able to tick off one more sensory experience.
Regardless of my written musings, the question always makes me pause for thought. Which sense would you cling to most?
Of course, there’s one other sense I could not bear to part with …
my sense of humor.
Not too sure I’d want to part with Rob’s either.
Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott’s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.
- Scientists Identify Protein Key to Mammalian Odor Detection (medindia.net)
- Do cells in the blood, heart and lungs smell the food we eat? (sciencedaily.com)
- Luca Turin Ted Talk ‘The Science of Scent’ (ted.com)