The Overlooked Sense of Smell

I work in a clinic with other therapists and autistic children. While working at the kidney bean shaped table with my own client, a volatile methane molecule makes its way into my nostrils. Oh, dear… That’s more than just methane… Who is it?

“Does anyone else smell that?”

“Smell what?”

“I think someone went poo…” and I signal in the direction it seems to be emitting from.

“Jonah, did you poop?”  asks his therapist.


"Did you really??"

He said it with such conviction. That poor therapist…

Santiago Ramón y Cajal: Bulbi olfattorii

My nose has come in handy at the tattoo studio I worked at when there was a distinct death odor that at this point most everyone smelled. The problem was locating the critter… To everyone else it just seems to be emanating from all directions and most were reluctant to sniff for more information. Not I, sir. After a 10 minute survey, I call over Erik. I point behind a shelf in the storage area.

“Here. It’s here.”

            “Are you sure?”


            “Ah. Gross.”

What a pungent smell for such a tiny mouse.

You would think these stories would make for unpleasant experiences, and yes, surely sometimes strong odors give me headaches, but my favorite sense of our five is still smell. I would give it up over eyes and ears for functional reasons, but I would be very depressed without my sense of smell. (For the record, I would give up tastes if I had a choice between all five.) Smell is another world of experience and because of how powerful olfactory cues are for remembering, you get to relive a time, place, or person just by catching a whiff.

And people smells… The Major Histocompatibility Complex, MHC, is a gene which controls the odor you give off. It is also linked to immunity. Evolutionarily and genetically, you should mate with healthy individuals who are genetically different for you to create offspring with a wider range of immunities and to prevent inbreeding. These scents are of course subtle, but I can attest that when I lived in my hometown, I was surrounded by people more genetically similar to me. I swear some otherwise very clean suitors had a strange smell on the tops of their lips. More than one, same type of smell.

But then there are those few people… That deep breath when my face is at their neck. I inhale them deeply. Melting. I could smell this forever, with quick sniffs of coffee in-between because 1)I love coffee and 2) perfumeries use coffee to “cleanse the palate”. Oh, but I’d have to take breaks to smell other amazing things. Carolina Herrera for Men or Boucheron. Those are my Dad. Or mesquite wood fires. That’s my ranch.

So many lovely things to be smelled. Take a moment to take a whiff.



How Do We Smell?


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, The Scent of Desire