the sense of smell

And why it matters. And why it differs from the other senses. And why am I interested in it? Less important than the other questions, but it is apparent from all kinds of experts that smells register differently than the other senses. I don’t need to provide links for that, do I?

Well, for my sake, perhaps I do.

Smell and Memory

A smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people’s moods and even affect their work performance. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.

The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. Despite the tight wiring, however, smells would not trigger memories if it weren’t for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory — associating the smell of chlorine with summers at the pool or lilies with a funeral. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood. Chlorine might call up a specific pool-related memory or simply make you feel content. Lilies might agitate you without your knowing why. This is part of the reason why not everyone likes the same smells.

Because we encounter most new odors in our youth, smells often call up childhood memories. But we actually begin making associations between smell and emotion before we’re even born. Infants who were exposed to alcohol, cigarette smoke or garlic in the womb show a preference for the smells. To them, the smells that might upset other babies seem normal or even comforting.

Which, of course, brings the reference of Proust and his madeleine.

From Wikipedia:

In In Search of Lost Time (also known as Remembrance of Things Past), author Marcel Proust uses madeleines to contrast involuntary memory with voluntary memory. The latter designates memories retrieved by “intelligence,” that is, memories produced by putting conscious effort into remembering events, people, and places. Proust’s narrator laments that such memories are inevitably partial, and do not bear the “essence” of the past. The most famous instance of involuntary memory by Proust is known as the “episode of the madeleine,” yet there are at least half a dozen other examples in In Search of Lost Time.

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

(Oh, see what I’ve done here? I’m basically using literary/literal references in the same way that Proust is using his madeleine.)

But the question is am I attaching meaning to this now.

It really isn’t a big suprise. The smells of summer are much stronger due to heat. So many smells are released now, and so many evoke so many levels of memories. And some are not memories, but just olfactory jolts, not all pleasant. It’s hot these days here in Tzfat. When the garbage (of all kinds?) is not invisible, it certainly is not possible to avoid the smells released. But, on the wonderful other hand, it is also possible to smell the amazing fragrances of flowers. Of fruit being ripened in the sun. In front of you.

And then you are asked if you want to taste some of this fruit.

There is nothing better in the world.


And one more thing:

Smell retraces the holy, unadulterated level of a Jew’s innermost soul – his neshama – that is indeed free of defilement. Ketores warrants the inclusion of the pungent chelbenah spice – a reference to Jewish sinners – because even they possess an innate purity with the ability to reattach themselves to G-d at any time. Indeed, this explains why the ketores as related to the purity of the neshama was brought into the innermost chamber of the house of G-d on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. And the first part of the High Priest’s body to enter was the nose (Talmud, Yoma 19b & Rashi ad. loc.)


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