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

Advertisements

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

 

The Eyes May Look, But It’s Your Brain That Sees

When I step outside my door, I step into a world of mostly green: trees and grass. In our subdivision, there are trees and grass in everyone’s front yards; there is an undeveloped natural area right across from my house; and to the rear, a 98-acre park, consisting mostly of wooded areas with a three-mile bike trail winding through the trees.

There’s so much green that two of my granddaughters, who have spent most of their lives to this point (6 and 9 years) in New Mexico, always comment about “so much green” when they come to visit Nina and GrandBob.

I see green, but is it really green?

According to the National Institute of Health, the eyes may look, but it’s the brain that sees.

 

How We See

There are many different parts of the eye that help to create vision.

  • Light passes through the cornea, the clear, dome-shaped surface that covers the front of the eye.
  • The cornea bends – or refracts – this incoming light.
  • The iris, the colored part of the eye, regulates the size of the pupil, the opening that controls the amount of light that enters the eye.
  • Behind the pupil is the lens, a clear part of the eye that further focuses light, or an image, onto the retina.
  • The retina is a thin, delicate, photosensitive tissue.
  • This tissue contains the special “photoreceptor” cells that convert light into electrical signals.
  • These electrical signals are processed further, and then travel from the retina of the eye to the brain through the optic nerve, a bundle of about one million nerve fibers.

But even with all that, we “see” with our brains; our eyes “simply” collect visual information and begin this complex process.

According to ScienceNordic, our brain quickly adapts to new surroundings and only sees the most important information captured though our eyes.

Certain objects attract our attention in a particular way. It could be something that is especially ugly or something that we perceive as being rather pretty.

So, what is it that catches and keeps our eye fixed to something “nice”? How does the brain choose what to observe and ignore?

Two Types of Vision

Roughly speaking, we have two systems of vision. One system prevents us from bumping into things and enables us to move around. It’s called “orientation attention,” and it operates quickly, saving energy, as the brain is not required to develop a full understanding of your surroundings.

The other system is called “discover attention.” This operates more slowly, as the brain collects information from our memory to obtain a full understanding of the scene.

An example of the two systems in operation can be seen when you walk down the street. The orientation system allows you to easily move in and out of the path of other people, and stops you from falling over or walking into a lamppost. But when your eye catches sight of something interesting in a shop window, you switch over to the discover system to get the full picture.

The object you’re looking at might seem familiar, but has a different shape or color. How long you spend looking at the object, depends on how much sense it makes to you and the number of other things you’re thinking about at that time.

How to Fix Your Attention

We use these two systems alternatively without even realizing it. Since the orientation system requires less energy, we quickly switch back to it when we have enough information.

In reality, we know that objects with certain characteristics are better at catching our attention, while others are better at holding our attention.

Reflecting on Leonardo da Vinci’s comment that “the average human looks without seeing,” author Michael Gelb invites people to improve our senses – and our minds and experiences along the way – by “seeing” like da Vinci. Saoer vedere (knowing how to see) was one of da Vinci’s mottoes, and the cornerstone of his artistic and scientific work. Use this self-assessment of “vision” to start “seeing” like da Vinci:

  • I am sensitive to color harmonies and clashes
  • I look out into the far horizon and up to the sky at least once a day
  • I am good at describing a scene in detail
  • I like doodling and drawing
  • Friends would describe me as alert
  • I am sensitive to subtle changes in lighting
  • I can picture things clearly in my mind’s eye

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

Spot Something New Every Day

We spend most of our time in familiar places that have lost their inherent novelty. We take these surroundings for granted, and we stop paying close attention. A recurring commute becomes profoundly numbing. Psychologists who study perception call this phenomenon inattentional blindness.

You can fight inattentional blindness by resolving to notice something different every day on your regular walks or commutes.

The Art of Noticing, Rob Walker

As for my daily walks, this week I’ve been looking at all that green, specifically the trees in my neighborhood. I’m mentally cataloging all the different species, and then noticing how they fit into their immediate environment, and to what purpose.

In other words, I’m walking with “discover attention.”

What about you? Which ‘”attention” will you use most today?

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing