Saturday, June 25, 2011


Listening to That Smell by Lynyrd Skynyrd the other day reminded me of an essay written by Dr. Lewis Thomas in his Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony wherein he observes that "Smelling is another matter.  I should think we might fairly gauge the future of biological science, centuries ahead, by estimating the time it will take to reach a complete, comprehensive understanding of odor.  It may not seem a profound enough problem to dominate all the life sciences, but it contains, piece by piece, all the mysteries.  ...if I try to recall the thick smell of Edinburgh in winter, or the accidental burning of a plastic comb, or a rose, or a glass of wine, I cannot do this; I can get a clear picture of any face I feel like remembering, and I can hear whatever Beethoven quartet I want to recall, but except for the leaf bonfire I cannot really remember a smell in its absence.  To be sure, I know the odor of cinammon or juniper and can name such things with accuracy when they turn up in front of my nose, but I cannot imagine them into existence."  There is a careful distinction here.  Sure we know an odor from memory when we smell it (otherwise wine, tea, and scotch connoisseurs would be out of luck), but the point here is that we cannot reproduce it at will.  Until I read Dr. Thomas I never really thought about it; we can will a vision to appear from memory of someone we know, or remember a tune we like (and sometimes we can't get it out of our mind afterwards much to our chagrin), we can even make our taste buds water at the mere thought of a juicy steak - but we cannot produce an odor on demand for our nose to enjoy (at least from the intelligent end of our body).  The reason?  Olfactory cells high in the nose are actual neuronal brain cells with axons thereto uninterrupted by the parts of the brain responsible for memory.  And although Dr. Thomas believes he can re-create at will the smell of a leaf bonfire (and only the smell of a leaf bonfire, he admits), science would argue against it.  Try it yourself.

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS:  Beth Cooks! is expecting!