What the hell is up with smell? I feel that it’s the cipher sense. Sight, hearing and touch interact with the world in some fundamental way. Sight is basically our window into the world of electromagnetic waves. It tells us where things are. Touch tells us where our body is in relation to the things around us. Hearing is a bit stranger, but at least sound waves are a natural-seeming phenomena. Sound occurs (at a basic level) when one object interacts with another. Without it, we’d be unable to know when things were touching and when they were just really close to each other.

Taste and smell are stranger. Taste is basically around to tell us when things are food. I guess that’s a better way of figuring things out than just putting them in our mouth and seeing whether or not we die in a few days. Still it is kind of wierd that things have different tastes. Shouldn’t there be just two? Food and not food. I guess food with more calories tastes better, which makes evolutionary sense. So I can sort of deal with that.

But what in the world is up with smell? Our nose is basically a real complicated chemical sensor. Our nose has about 350 triggers. That means that there are 350 molecules that we can smell. When a molecule enters our nose it activates one of the triggers (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s pretty much what I can understand about it) and sends a message to our brain that’s like “Hey, we got some sulfur here”. So when you smell sulfur you know you’re smelling sulfur, even if you don’t know what sulfur is.

Okay, there’s several kind of wierd thing about this. When I’m smelling feet does that mean that feet particles have magically traveled all the way up to my nose? Everytime I smell something nasty that means that something nasty is literally in my nose.

Secondly, what is the point? Generally things that are kind of dangerous smell bad. Feces, gasoline, etc. But then there a bunch of things that smell bad yet are not that dangerous, like urine. And there are things that have no real smell yet are very dangerous, like blood.

Finally, I’m going to guess that whether something smells good or bad is very cultural. Subsistence level farmers without running water can’t afford to be sticklers for cleanliness (neither can people who live in huts held together with dung), and since they don’t recoil from each other I’m going to guess that they don’t smell bad to each other.

Our sense of smell becomes acclimated, so we only notice things that are out of the ordinary. When is smell ever going to present a clear and present danger to us? When am I ever going to say “Hey, I would not be alive today had I not smelled that!” (although I suppose there are things like gas leaks and fires). In general it seems like a sense with incredibly limited utility. Except for dogs, I suppose.

But the point I want to make is that in writing people often talk about how you should appeal to the five senses. I disagree, the advice should really be to appeal to the four senses and only through in a nod to smell when it is absolutely necessary! Smell is clearly a second-class sense and should not be treated the same as the other four! Smell does not pull its weight in the human body and our descriptive passages should reflect this.

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  1. creamedcorn

    the sense of smell is one of the strongests ones linked to memory, which is why it’s important to mention it in writing as it can conjure up images better than a paragraph of well thought out words.
    for the modern human the sense of smell is really only imporant in smelling fires, leaky gas pipes, or just unhealthy situations. The sense of smell is our weakest sense, which I’m sure you know, but it’s still important. My aunt does not have the sense of smell and it has harmed her in the past.
    She has a dog (princess) who frequently vomits on the rug. One time she was cooking and the dog vomited so she was in a hurry to clean it up. She grabbed what she thought was the stain remover but was in fact Drain-o. Her hands got pretty burnt by it. Had she been able to smell that it was not stain remover she would have been able to avoid that burn.
    I wouldn’t give up my sense of smell.