Just how nosy are you?

I’m not asking are you a meddling snoop and all up in somebody else’s bidness nosy, I mean how much do you treasure your schnoz?

eyes closed, ears open

Out of all my most cherished senses, including my sense of humor, I would have to place my ability to smell at the top of the list. This perplexes at least one of my family members, as she has told me just how short-sighted I am in evaluating the importance, need and relevance of a few other senses that should come first in line. She could be right, but short-sighted I am not. I had Lasik done years ago to fix that problem, and now, neither short or far-sighted, all I do is seem to play the trombone when bringing fine print before my peepers.

Although I’m grateful for the actual ability to smell—the heady, perfumed sprig of lilac, that warm, plump strawberry dribbling juice down my chin, and the eye-watering, throat closing fumes of sulphur dioxide—it is the result of the smells that I am more appreciative of. What is this result?

The memory that is stirred by them.

I am transported back to the day when a childhood friend stuffed my school locker with armfuls of lilac blooms. I return to the hot and sticky summers of kneeling in the freshly turned, sun warmed soil of a strawberry farm where I worked eating more than I picked. I am yanked out of sleep with the sharp reminder that I allowed the dog to finish off the Mexican three bean layer dip before bedtime.

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These memories are precious. And pungent. And worthy of preserving.

(Some will be burned into my brain to ensure I will not make the same error twice.)

They are curious things, one’s nose and one’s memory, and the way in which they are linked is something we humans rarely consider. Whether it’s a flashback of your second grade teacher’s smothering hug after you lost the three-legged race on Track and Field Day stirred by walking by the perfume counter at Macy’s, or the recollection of your yearly trip to the state fair anytime someone opens a jar of peanuts, a sense of smell is something that can (and should) be practiced in order to improve. Sadly, many folks have no idea just how skilled your nose can become.

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If you want to learn how to play the piano, you must exercise your fingers across the keyboard. If you want to learn how to develop your sense of smell, you must exercise your nose across a variety of aroma compounds. The nasal workout is nothing more than inhaling a diverse assortment of scents, repeatedly and without peeking—no barbells necessary.

The key to great success lies in the memorization of these odors. Sure you can easily detect hay and cowpie patties when you wander on by the edges of a working dairy farm, but can you identify those same pungent barnyard aromas in that lovely glass of pinot noir you’re about to drink? And no, that earthy terroir note does not mean your glass is destined for the kitchen sink. Balance is the key.

Have you ever walked into someone’s house and immediately recognized a scent, but couldn’t place it? It might be because you came thirty seconds too late to see the gaggle of teenage girls rush up to someone’s bedroom with a truckload of freshly made popcorn. Walk into a movie theater on a Saturday night and you’ll know in an instant that very same scent. Why?Memorization. Firstly, you expect it to be there, and secondly, it’s all over the floor.

As humans, our noses generally expect to see the source of whatever aroma is perfuming the air we’re inhaling. Invisible smells have folks casting about, searching out the supplier. If we can’t see it, it causes us to test the strength of our memory. If you haven’t practiced recognizing the scent of a banana at fifty paces, or you haven’t enjoyed the romantic routine of “close your eyes and open up,” and then guessed what was on the fork, you might want to give it a go.

Word of warning though, do not hand that fork over to an eight-year old with a stinky sense of humor. A wedge of soap, although cleansing, sticks to the palate for a good chunk of time.

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Science tells us that smells and memory are linked early on, as most of the “new” smells you encounter occur during your youth, and when recognizing a scent, it’s more often than not connected with the moment you first stumbled upon it.

So you may shy away from doing a laundry load of bleach-necessary whites because you are taken back to that wretched community pool where the boys poked fun at you in your first and last ever bikini. And it’s possible you refuse to get anywhere near the nectar-sweet smell of Southern Comfort after that college frat boy party where you … well, let’s say I’ve heard about the results.

On the flip side, some people burn pine-scented candles all year long because the fragrance of the holidays is so embedded with sweet childhood emotions they’d like to sit on Santa’s lap 24/7. And others keep a nearly empty bottle of cheap perfume from the time they were fourteen and first kissed at their middle school dance as an immediate recollection of their earliest crush.

Smells evoke feelings. Scents bring back memories. Aromas manipulate the “emotional brain.”

As I am a nostalgically sappy sort, I love to jog that gray matter and recapture some history. And you can do it too by finally memorizing the smell of something without actually seeing it. It’s really very simple, and actually wonderfully fun.

So to hone your nose and develop some talent in the department of aromatherapy, remember these words: In order to have a sharp sense of smell in the future, just take a whiff of your past.


**Gotta Have a Gott**

Last month, Rob and I announced that his sketches will be available toward the end of the year in the form of a 2015 calendar! And our readers would get to be the judges and voters for which doodles they’d like to see selected for each month. We’ll reveal the winners one by one, and come November, If you’ve Gotta have a GOTT, you can place your order. Click here to see the cartoons in competition and to cast your vote.

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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33 thoughts on “Just how nosy are you?

  1. Love this! I remember the first time I smelled cucumber and aloe. I was still working at Starbucks, a pleasant, charming Indian man came in, and his smell impressed me more than anything. I never knew the “ingredients”.

    Years later, I was in a dept. store and found some cucumber and aloe deodorant. The moment I took a whiff, I remembered that old Indian guy who once asked me to take dance classes at his studio. The smell still delights me.

    • Ooh, there’s something so spa-like about that combination. Total zen aromas. And clean too. Yep, scents are almost like little magic buttons that when pressed, can transport you to the past. Happy memories. 😉

  2. So very true.
    In the memory stakes, the smell of pipe tobacco reminds me of my Grandfathers, I can sniff out fresh sausage rolls from 200 yards which reminds me of one of Mum’s baking sessions, the smell of fresh garlic reminds me of my Dad one Christmas answering the door in tears because his was so strong, and Hubby says he would know me by my smell anywhere, especially as I don’t use cosmetics or perfumes (nice)!
    On the other hand, certain places can smell of certain things which are not so pleasant in the nostrils. Those are not the same as stirring the memories.

    • I suppose you’re right. They are not stirring the memories, they are churning the stomach. 😦

      And I adore the scent of pipe tobacco. It’s funny how it’s a childhood smell for so many of us, but perhaps it’s testament to the fact that the health risk far outweighs the pleasure. Still, I will cling to those memories. 😉

  3. “La bonne cuisine est la base du véritable bonheur.”

    – Escoffier


    You know where I stand with this. The sense of smell is, well, what makes life, my life. Of all the senses, and mind you I truly argue with myself of which is the most important, as a chef, smell & taste, texture plays a second (or third)… as a musician, to hear the music… unimaginable if I could not consume the sweet sounds of any instrument be it manmade or natural, or, even not to hear the wondrous voices of my children’s laughter. Sight – ah, the experience of the sunrise over Moon Light Bay during waterfowl season in the water up to my chest and reeds chasing a Buffelhead. The sunset over the Olympic Mountains in Seattle during a 15 minute “sunset check” break from the cooking line at Ray’s Boathouse… the memories of both over so many years in so many beautiful environments. To touch, feel, hold; enough said.

    Once again Shelley a beautifully written blog. No, not a blog, you write from your heart and soul. You share your life. Keep it up and maybe the rest of the world will settle down, read your experiences and relate to each other. Much respect.


    Stoshu 🙂

    • What a delight! Reading your words took me on a journey of sensory exploration. I was right there with you – and terribly uncomfortable up to my chest in that reedy, slurpy water that has now oozed over and into my waders.

      Still, I thank you for sharing. And now for you, buddy, a book suggestion: Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum. A chef in training, she loses her sense of smell after a biking accident, and all that happens thereafter is page-turning worthy. A masterful and truly engaging read. I’m sure you’ll adore it.

  4. Excellent post! In my opinion, many of us underestimate how much we rely on the sense of smell. In my case, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I married my Long-Suffering Spouse because he smells “right” (to be exact, the nape of his neck smells like a pine tree). I love that anecdote about the lilacs. If I were allergic to them (as my mother is), I would feel a serious loss. I find myself unable to tolerate most perfumes–and yet, the scents of flowers and herbs and (most of all) food and drink are some of my greatest pleasures.

  5. Great thoughts! Like in Proust’s “A la recherché du temps perdu/ Du cote de chez Swann” (Swann’s way), when he smells the “petite madeleine” and childhood memories & sensations come rushing back over him.

    • Many thanks, Rhea. I think France is a palace of perfumed experiences. Literally everywhere you go there is one enticing aroma after another. The sea, the bakeries, the coffee shops, the perfumeries, the lavender fields–the list is exhaustive. Ooh la la! 😛

  6. I’ve always found it interesting how our sense of smell is the one that is most closely linked to our memories. Like you (and I guess everyone else), I find that some of my most vivid memories are of smells. In my mind, the sights and sounds of those memories have faded, like a photo exposed to sunlight over the years, but the smells I associate with them can be recalled in an instant.

  7. The only thing lacking in your recent post about tea was the technology to make my laptop smell like what you were describing. (It’s a technology that could be used for both good and bad, I know)…Although I don’t consider my sense of smell to be well developed, I am a total sucker for sucking up the scent of food and such. I generally don’t eat something before I consciously smell it. (That’s probably why fast food isn’t often on the menu for me.)

    Right now my friend is cooking a delicious meal here…distracting me from writing (I was gonna work ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ into this, but I forgot how…guess my memory goes blank when I smell good food;))

    • I’m right there with you on this one, Lennard. When anyone cooks a meal for me, my brain is entirely engaged in controlling the drool-factor of my body. There is nothing left over for use in any other intellectual pursuits.
      Hope the meal was worthy, although I firmly believe that the effort another person exerts in feeding others ratchets up the taste factor. Love and kindness should be labeled as spices. 😉

      • I’m sorry, I’m picturing you, fully focused on keeping the drool inside, while your avatar picture is that of a dog with glasses. It’s an interesting image (and hardly as unflattering as it probably sounds).
        The meal last night was as good as it smelled…but as it was being prepared I ventured into other areas of your site, only to find an index of recipes more extensive than the homepage for the Food Network (I’m assuming, didn’t bother to check)…will definitely add some love and kindness to the mix as I’ll be trying them out one of these days. Will let you know of course!

        • The hound and I went in for our photo shoot on the same day, and his head shot was definitely more flattering than mine, plus, since we live in such a remote area with no other neighborhood dogs to socialize with, I promised I’d help him get his face out there, you know, in case anyone was interested.

          Keep me posted as to how it all pans out with the … pots and pans. 🙂

  8. Returning from our nightly walk this evening, the blossoms on my grapefruit tree filled the air with their clean, clear sweetness and I thought, “if only I could post this scent on the internet.” Then I read your wondrous words about scent and smell and schnoz workings and I think we’re on the same wavelength. Thanks for sharing so vividly the connection between brain and nose and life. Sounds like you’ve practiced often and diligently.

    • Wouldn’t that be wonderful? True smellovision? Or the cologne computer?

      I know there have been a few companies that have made some advances in the area of offering scent within a computer experience, but obviously it’s not taken off quite yet. But I’d be first in line.

      I’m seriously craving the smell of grapefruit blossoms now, and yet have no idea what the perfume would reveal. It just sounds like it would be something ethereal and heady. Inhale deeply for me, ok? 😉

  9. “Smells evoke feelings. Scents bring back memories. Aromas manipulate the “emotional brain.” Beautifully said, lovely words that mean so much. I agree with you Shelley that smells and brain are connected. We remember the smell and after pondering over it a while, our brain computer digs out the source in the past. Excellent topic you have covered and it not only educates but inspires as well. Take care and God bless.

    • You’re always so kind with your thoughtful comments and compliments, Samina. I so appreciate hearing your words. I’m glad you found the essay worthy of reading. Your blog inspires the very same in me! Cheers to you 🙂

  10. What a creative post about the nose. Apparently our sense of smell is the “oldest” sense we have as humans–much like how animals use their sense of smell. I love that idea. And, it makes perfect sense as I read your post about the memories it evokes:)

    • Well, looky there. You’ve just told ME something I didn’t know about the nose. Our oldest sense, eh? And now I’m curious and will ditch work for the next hour while I research as much as I can about that. I had no idea our senses had a timeline of development. Just something I took for granted.
      Thank you for sharing. And I think the name of your blog is perfectly fitting because ‘whativelearnedfornowandamwillingtoshare’ is a bit long, right? 🙂

  11. You just gained a new follower. I LOVE this blog, and am laughing so hard I’m in danger of falling out of my chair onto my butt. Unfortunately I’ve lost my sense of smell, but still have memories, mostly pleasant, but some of skunks that once inhabited our barn. Ick.

    • Thank you, thank you, thank you, Angela. What a daymaker of a comment.

      I cannot imagine what it must feel like to walk around with a perpetual ‘head cold,’ but I read a fascinating book about a young chef who lost her sense of smell after a bike accident. Have you come across ‘Season to Taste’ by Molly Birnbaum? Wonderful story – fantastic research – and riveting from start to finish.

      And somehow it seems terribly unfair that it’s skunk that would hang around in your memories, although it seems to be true in that the scent is nearly impossible to get rid of in real life too. Figures. 😉

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