Go Smell Something

Generally, I don’t have a good memory for smells unless it tickles from one of the extremes. If someone was sauteing onions in my house, I’ll remember that. If the passenger next to me on the subway needed a shower, I unfortunately remember that too. This makes sense since I don’t rely on smell to make it through my day-to-day activities.

This is also an absolute shame because smell is our most powerful sense.

We can detect at least 1 trillion distinct scents with our noses and skin. Combined with the fact that smell is our oldest scent, one we share with even single-celled organisms, we’re walking around with veritable superpowered-schnozes, yet we waste this gift by reading and writing and speaking and looking at odorless LCD screens for most of the day.

I’ve come to think of written words as fossilized sounds, because characters (abcdef…) serve as placeholders meant to trigger your understanding of the sounds they represent. This is how we can communicate without needing to speak. It’s not news that this is an amazing way to communicate, since it’s asynchronous, meaning I can write this at my own pace and you can read this at your own pace, it hopefully lasts forever, and it also offers a way to more formally organize our thoughts and ideas.

But it seems we can communicate with smell in a much, much, much more impressive way.

Smells have the kind of lasting power of the written word. These would be fossilized smells, and they aren’t words, they’re bacteria. Scientists used bacterial fossils to determine that life on earth 1.9 billion years ago would have smelled similar to rotten eggs. These bacteria provided the necessary smell clues the same way written words provide the necessary clues for sounds.

But is “rotten egg” even a smell? Egg is a type of food and rotten describes that the food is no longer edible. Tom Stafford, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sheffield, addresses how, despite the fact that our sense of smell is worthy of nonstop boasting, the English language makes it tough to do so:

Smell is perhaps the sense we are least used to talking about. We are good at describing how things look, or telling how things sounded, but with smells we are reduced to labeling them according to things they are associated with (“smells like summer meadows” or “smells like wet dog”, for instance). An example of this “hard-to-talk-about-ness” is that while we have names for colours which mean nothing but the colour, such as “red”, we generally only have names for smells which mean the thing that produces that smell, such as “cedar”, “coconut” or “fresh bread”. – @tomstafford

Filmmakers understood this limitation with regards to their visual storytelling, and one pair of men famously failed to overcome it with Smell-O-Vision. Maybe the noises we make in response to smells could be considered the names of smells, which would make the smell for “rotten egg” something like gkkkklll or uggggrrrhhhh. Digital tech is catching up, with text messages that can carry pleasant smells like lavender and coffee as well as an alarm clock that uses bacon to wake its users up.

All this newfound perspective has got me in the mood to start using my superpower more often.

I gotta go smell something.

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