Did you know that your sense of smell is one of the oldest parts of your brain and linked to survival?
Yesterday I was thinking about a chapter called The Olfactory Factor I wrote for my book, Don’t Use My Sweater Like a Towel.
And after writing about Judy McGuire’s smelly penis story in Sunday’s post and for the review I did of her book, I figured it’s a good time to post about how your sense of smell affects dating and mating.
The Olfactory Factor – Chapter Eight
“Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”
Diane Ackerman, The Natural History of Senses
I have always been told I’m too sensitive to smell. I can smell bad breath and body odor a mile away. I often get annoyed with people based on their smell – sometimes I even dislike a person if their odor offends me. When I pick a treadmill at the gym, I base it on how the area smells. If the person who gets on the treadmill next to mine has a noticeable odor (perfume, cologne, body odor or, worst of all, bad breath), I will move to another. Whenever I travel by plane, I always ask the universe not to seat me next to a stinky person—one of my biggest nightmares on a long flight.
Although a hypersensitive sense of smell can be something of a curse, I have learned to embrace mine as a true blessing. Evolutionarily, smell is connected to existence: an extraordinary gift I now appreciate as a basic, primitive instinct guiding me through a modern world.
Smell is one of the oldest parts of the human brain and, even more than sight and hearing, allows us to survive. According to Shigeyuki Ito, in his paper, Smell and Memory, “despite our belief that sight and hearing are the most important senses to our survival, from an evolutionary perspective smell is one of the most important.” Without the more than twenty thousand sensors that allow us to smell over 10,000 odors, our primitive ancestors would not have known the good berries from the bad, the rotten meat from the fresh, or been able to detect the lurking, unseen predator. In the modern world, our sense of smell allows us to tell the difference between good and spoiled milk in the refrigerator, rancid baby food. This sense is just as important today, but its usefulness may not be in the front of our minds.
Along the same lines, the medical community, dating back to the ancient Greeks, has and continues to rely on smell, primarily breath, to measure health. Dr. Linus Pauling, having determined that the breath contains hundreds of substances, innovated breath testing in the 1970s; and today, from diabetes and cirrhosis to tuberculosis and cancer, doctors are increasingly able to avoid invasive testing procedures by using breath samples.
Smell just as effectively plays a role in mating, though we may be less aware of its influence today. The use of scent in ritual and beautification dates back to the ancient Egyptians, spreading to Rome, Greece, Islamic cultures, and into the west. The ancient Greeks, Hindus and Chinese have worn such things as castoreum (which comes from the sweat gland of beavers), a red gel pheromone of the East Asian musk deer, and civet (a viscous secretion from the Ethiopian civet cat) to attract and seduce a lover. I knew those pheromones I bought would be made of camel-dung or donkey ball essence.
To be continued…