ASK a random group of people to list their 10 favourite smells and you’ll be astonished at how alike their responses are.
I do this often with participants in creative writing workshops, and students at local schools and, given that every breath we take is saturated with an extraordinary amount of olfactory information, the scents that move us are surprisingly similar.
The smell of a baby’s head, the scent of freshly cut grass, or freshly-washed bed linen. The nostalgia born when rain falls on a hot pavement or road.
Among the school kids there are always boys who can’t get enough of diesel fuel, or the smell of a new football.
Though I do remember one Year 8 boy who bravely told his class that he loved the smell of his grandmother’s hair when she hugged him.
It’s like Anne Tyler wrote, “Smells can bring a person back clearer than pictures even could.”
Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, but try to describe how something smells to someone who hasn't smelt it and things start to get hazy. How would that boy describe the smell of his grandmother’s hair?
We only see when there is light enough; only taste when we put things into our mouths; only touch when we make contact with someone or something; but we smell always and with every breath.
The human nose is capable of detecting one trillion different scents.
A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them.
Rudyard Kipling was right. “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack.”
Each day, we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. With each breath, molecules of odor flood through our systems. Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them.
It’s no wonder the scent of another human can either repel us, calm us, or excite us in ways we cannot explain.
Smell researchers at the University of Leeds in England observed that smelling one another’s hands or faces is a nearly universal human greeting. The Eskimo kiss is not just a rubbing of noses but a mutual sniffing. Only in the Western world has it become modified to a kiss.
Hands and faces are significant choices for such olfactory exchanges – they are the two most accessible concentrations of scent glands on the human body besides the ears… ah, the ears.
New research suggests that the human nose is capable of detecting one trillion different scents.
Whether any of us are capable of such a feat in a single lifetime is neither here or there, but such knowledge might encourage us to be more curious where smell is concerned; to take a longer, more purposeful sniff at the world around us.