Your Nose Knows

I have discovered that the sense of smell, like the other senses, is engaged differently by the calendar.

For instance, if I am walking in the spring, my first scent will most likely be growing things: grass, trees, and flowers the most likely sources. But walk out the same door in the fall, and the scent will be decaying and dead things, particularly the leaves of the trees: having served their growing season’s purpose, they slowly die, then drift down to the ground to be blown away or collected and disposed of.

This same concept applies to man-made objects, and in my neighborhood, happens every Thursday. That’s the day when our roll-away waste containers are lined up like soldiers, one, two, or three abreast, standing at attention (some at-ease) at the end of the driveway. Throughout the day, the garbage trucks come by to grab, dump, and replace the empty containers back in the driveway. So on Thursdays, any walk down the sidewalk of the neighborhood is inviting your nose to be a collector of the last week’s life, now trash. Even through the plastic trash bags and mostly-closed lids, the odors can be pervasive. Decaying food is often the main component, but for those families with little ones, the odor of food comes in a different scent! By the design of the collection machinery, the lids of empty containers remain open – to air out, but also to announce to any passerby the strongest odors of what was formerly occupying the container.

And it is at this moment that your nose knows – not only what was in the container a short while ago, but what that scent brings to your memories.

According to science, the sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses.  Those with full olfactory function may be able to think of smells that evoke particular memories; the scent of an orchard in blossom conjuring up recollections of a childhood picnic, for example.  This can often happen spontaneously, with a smell acting as a trigger in recalling a long-forgotten event or experience.

Given the time of year, try this the next time you are walking through Target or an office supply store: Pick up a box of crayons, open the top, and take a deep breath. Most likely, you will be transported from the store aisle to elementary school, with memories of your new box of crayons comforting the uncertainty of a new classroom full of friends yet to be made.

So how does your nose know?

According to the National Institutes of Health, your sense of smell – like your sense of taste – is part of your chemosensory system, or the chemical senses.

Your ability to smell comes from specialized sensory cells, called olfactory sensory neurons, which are found in a small patch of tissue high inside the nose. These cells connect directly to the brain. Each olfactory neuron has one odor receptor. Microscopic molecules released by substances around us—whether it’s coffee brewing or pine trees in a forest—stimulate these receptors. Once the neurons detect the molecules, they send messages to your brain, which identifies the smell. There are more smells in the environment than there are receptors, and any given molecule may stimulate a combination of receptors, creating a unique representation in the brain. These representations are registered by the brain as a particular smell.

Smells reach the olfactory sensory neurons through two pathways. The first pathway is through your nostrils. The second pathway is through a channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose. Chewing food releases aromas that access the olfactory sensory neurons through the second channel. If the channel is blocked, such as when your nose is stuffed up by a cold or flu, odors can’t reach the sensory cells that are stimulated by smells. As a result, you lose much of your ability to enjoy a food’s flavor. In this way, your senses of smell and taste work closely together.

Without the olfactory sensory neurons, familiar flavors such as chocolate or oranges would be hard to distinguish. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland and have little or no flavor. Some people who go to the doctor because they think they’ve lost their sense of taste are surprised to learn that they’ve lost their sense of smell instead.

Your sense of smell is also influenced by something called the common chemical sense. This sense involves thousands of nerve endings, especially on the moist surfaces of the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat. These nerve endings help you sense irritating substances—such as the tear-inducing power of an onion—or the refreshing coolness of menthol.

And so all day, every day, you are confronted with a smorgasbord of smells. Your five million olfactory cells can sniff out one molecule of odor-causing substance in one part per trillion of air. And you take about 23,000 breaths per day processing about 440 cubic feet of scent-laden air.

But most people have a very limited vocabulary for describing aromatic experience: “It stinks” or “That smells good” are the most common references. If you want to pay attention with your nose, aim to increase your discrimination of and appreciation for smell by expanding your olfactory vocabulary.

Make “Smells” a Theme for a Day

Record what you smell and how it affects you through the course of a day. Seek out unusual or intense aromas. Linger in the cheese department of your favorite gourmet store. Drive to the country and walk through a barnyard. Inhale the aroma of all the herbs and spices in your kitchen. How does smell affect your moods? Your memory? Aim to find and record specific examples of aromas affecting your emotion or recall.

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb

By prompting yourself to focus explicitly on scents and odors, you will most likely find yourself remembering the past while also developing a new appreciation for what your nose knows.

 

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

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You May Hear, But Are You Listening?

When I step out my door for a walk, the next sense I am aware of is sound.

The typical North Carolina summer mornings between 6 and 10 a.m. are anything but quiet – at least where I live. As soon as the door closes, the sounds envelop me. Depending on the time of day, the first think I will hear are the insects: crickets, katydids, and cicadas, mostly. Next come the birds: robins, jays, sparrows, wrens, and more, all greeting the day with their calls. Along with the creatures, I usually hear the sound of wind moving through the trees surrounding our house and lining the sidewalks of my journey.

Then manmade sounds crash in on nature: depending on the direction of the wind and the time of day, I will hear cars zooming up and down I-77, about a mile away. If it’s rush hour, oddly enough, it’s quieter – the cars aren’t traveling at speed limits, but creeping along much slower, and therefore much quieter.

Again, depending on the time of day and the wind pattern, I will hear the sounds of aircraft on approach to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Though I’m over 16 miles away, there is a landing approach pattern that circles above and to the west of my house, and during busy times I will hear one plane after another slowly cruising north and then turning west over Lake Norman before turning south to make their final approach. Having flown enough, and curious about planes enough, I can often identify the type of plane by its engine sound.

Continuing the walk brings a mixture of these sounds: dogs barking, AC units humming, lawn crews at work, construction machinery working on the foundation of a new house, road crews repaving, splashing water at the neighborhood pool, mountain bikes crashing through the trails behind the house, the infrequent train whistle of freight moving on the rail spur a mile away, and the various human sounds of families beginning their day, from the slamming of doors to music playing to laughter to arguments to silence.

We are able to hear a great deal in our daily lives, but do we know how to listen?

According to the University of Maryland Medical, here is how the ear works normally:

  1. Sound is transmitted as sound waves from the environment. The sound waves are gathered by the outer ear and sent down the ear canal to the eardrum.
  2. The sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate, which sets the three tiny bones in the middle ear into motion.
  3. The motion of the bones causes the fluid in the inner ear or cochlea to move.
  4. The movement of the inner ear fluid causes the hair cells in the cochlea to bend. The hair cells change the movement into electrical pulses.
  5. These electrical impulses are transmitted to the hearing (auditory) nerve and up to the brain, where they are interpreted as sound.

Hearing is a physical process involving sound waves and the body. We know about it because it is easy to study; listening, the interpretation of those sound waves, is harder to quantify.

To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived, both acoustically and psychologically.

Composer Pauline Oliveros

If you want to tune up your auditory sense, try the following exercises from Michael J. Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci:

Layered Listening

Once or twice each day, pause for a few moments, enjoy a few deep exhalations, and listen to the sounds around you. First, you’ll hear the loudest, most obvious sounds: the air conditioner, traffic outside, the background noises of people and machinery. Then as that “layer” becomes clarified, begin to notice the next layer down – sounds of your breathing, a gentle breeze, footsteps in the hall, the shifting of your sleeve when you move your hand. Keep moving your awareness deeper into the next layer and then the next until you hear the soft, rhythmic beating of your heart.

Listen for Silence

Practice listening in the spaces between sounds – the pauses in a friend’s conversation or your favorite music, and the silences between the notes in the song of a bluebird. Make silence a theme for a day and record your observations in your notebook. Do you have access to a place of complete silence, away from the humming of machines? Try to find such a place. How does it feel to be in a place of complete quiet?

Taking the above exercises one step further, composer Pauline Oliveros encourages people to “listen to all possible sounds.” When one sound grabs your attention, dwell on it. Does it end? Think about what it reminds you of. Consider sounds from your past, from dreams, from nature, from music.

To walk and listen. To some extent, this would be an exercise in playing close enough attention to name what we hear. Simply giving a name to a sound can change the experience of it: when we see the thing that clatters or moans or sighs, we hear it differently. Naming, though, is not the exclusive reason for listening. Indeed, at times naming a sound aborts the experience of hearing altogether, shutting us off from continued listening and exploring the nature of a sound.

Alexander Horowitz, On Looking

 

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

 

Senses and Sensibility – Getting Back to Basics

Do you long for the “good old days” when the pace of our lives was simpler and life was slower? As comedian Will Rogers once said,

Things ain’t what they used to be – and probably never was.

There’s no use longing for the good old days. In a world that is:

  • Increasingly hurried
  • Painfully insecure
  • Physically and mentally exhausting
  • Socially and economically fragmented, and
  • Psychologically and emotionally demanding

Millions of people are desperately in need of opportunities to feel:

  • Free from time pressure
  • Safe and secure in their surroundings
  • Pleasantly stimulated, physically and mentally
  • At peace with themselves and others, and
  • Ready to be open-minded, creative, and productive

Organizations that can provide such opportunities by re-imagining the Guest experience will attract an enormous number of Guests in the years ahead and keep them coming back.

Guest experience – in a church? Here’s where the “common sense” comes into play. Just like the business you frequent often, churches delivering experiences that exceed Guest’s expectations are those to which people return, again and again, until they’re no longer Guests but full-fledged members of the church community. When a Guest thinks “Wow!” it is because he or she feels affirmed or valued. The church has said, “You matter.” While you may not be trying to sell a product, your Guest (and potential member) is very much “shopping” for a church. More important, they are shopping for a spiritual experience that addresses their personal needs. Why not make sure you do all in your power to make it happen?

A Potpourri of Guest Improvement Ideas

Visit your church …again – How familiar are you with your own church building and campus? We all tend to get comfortable with our own surroundings and overlook what our Guests see. Try to see your facilities through a fresh set of eyes – your guest’s eyes.

  • How easy is it to drive onto your campus and find convenient parking close to your buildings?
  • What’s the condition of the parking lots, sidewalks, and landscaping?
  • Are there greeters and parking lot helpers to guide you into the building?
  • Are the buildings and rooms identified?
  • Is there a welcome area that is warm and inviting and that has smiling helpful people staffing it?
  • Do you have a café or refreshment area nearby for guests and members?
  • If you have children, it is easy to find the right place for them? Do the security measures in place give you a sense of peace as you leave your child?

Visit another church in your community – What can you learn from visiting another church?

  •  How do they handle parking and greeting?
  • What kinds of signage do they use?
  • How are the people greeting one another? Do feel like they’re invading your “space”, or are you comfortable?
  • When you first walk inside the building, what do you smell?
  • Is the area visually cluttered, or pleasing?
  • What’s the noise level like?
  • Is there a café area? Is it clean?

Overall, does the facility make you feel welcome? How does the personal impact of the people fit in to the surroundings?

Visit other types of places and engage all your senses – The next time you dine out, take on the role of a critic. Not just of the food, but of the total experience.

  •  What are your impressions of the parking area, the restaurant, host/hostess, wait time, staff – and don’t forget the food!
  •  How was the experience?
  • What wowed you?

You’re not trying to find something wrong – you’re trying to train yourself to use all your senses to imagine what Guests are experiencing when they come to your church.

Identify potential distractions – and work to remove them – If your Guests become distracted because they can’t find a place to park, or their children’s room has an odor in it, or whatever, you will have a difficult time re-engaging them for the real experience you’re trying to establish: a personal encounter with Jesus. When you eliminate potential or obvious distractions, you are one step closer to satisfying your Guests.

Company’s coming – are you ready to “WOW” them? Use your common sense to engage all of your Guest’s senses and their first impression will be a positive and lasting one.

Want to know more? Expand your “sensory knowledge” by reading:

  • First Impressions: Creating Wow Experiences in Your Church, Mark L. Waltz
  • The Experience Economy, Updated Edition, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore
  • How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb
  • The Starbucks Experience, Joseph Michelli
  • The Apple Experience, Carmine Gallo
  • Setting the Table, Danny Meyer
  • Chocolates on the Pillow Aren’t Enough, Jonathan M. Tisch
  • Brand Sense, Martin Lindstrom
  • Moments of Truth, Jan Carlzon
  • Why We Buy, Paco Underhill