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Exploring the Five Senses: Notes From the Sensonics Smell Test

Exploring the Five Senses: Notes From the Sensonics Smell Test

As I've written about, I'm working on a book about the body and the five senses.

For too long, I've treated my body like the car my head is driving around town. My prediction for this book was that by getting back inside my body by systematically exploring my senses, I could shake my mind awake. I have to say, it's been a delight to investigate the senses!

I've conducted a number of self-experiments (and recruited my family members as well) as I've been doing this research. I've tried cryotherapy, I go to the Metropolitan Museum every day, I've compared the taste of apple and onion.

But how good was my sense of smell? To test it, I ordered sets of the well-regarded Smell Identification Test™ from Sensonics International, and before long, seven tests and the Administration Manual arrived. Although I’d ordered this test for fun, it was clearly not meant for recreational use but as a scientific instrument to measure people’s ability to smell (mostly for workplace and insurance purposes, I surmised).

“We’re all taking a smell test this weekend,” I announced to my family. “It will only take about fifteen minutes.”

To my relief, they were intrigued, not annoyed—even Jamie was willing to play along.

“What are we going to smell?” Eleanor asked.

“You’ll see.”

Saturday afternoon, we sat around the dining room table, and I passed out four long thick envelopes. “Inside your envelope, you’ll find four booklets, for a total of forty smells,” I explained. “Each page has a brown patch that’s the microencapsulated odor—scratch-n-sniff—plus four choices to describe the smell. Just fill in the bubble.”

We each opened our envelopes and started to scratch and sniff. The smells were very straightforward, such as leather, banana, soap, gasoline.

“But I don’t know what turpentine smells like,” Eliza said after a few minutes.

“Me neither,” said Eleanor. “And what about menthol?”

“Do process of elimination.”

We scratched and sniffed, then I scored everyone—and yes, we can all smell.

It was strange, though, smelling a familiar smell and not recognizing it as good or bad, then realizing that I was smelling “rose,” and suddenly the smell turned from elusive to good.

As counter-intuitive as it seems, I've learned, for the most part, smells aren’t inherently good or bad. We’re born with strong innate reactions to tastes, but we don’t have the same kick of inborn responses to smell. This makes sense: when we eat something, it can hurt us, so it’s important that even a newborn can reject the bitter taste that often signals poison, and favor the sweet taste that often accompanies nourishment. But nature doesn’t threaten us with killer smells, so we’re not born with innate responses, or at least, very few.

Whether we think the smell of hyacinth, new car, or skunk  is “good” or “bad” depends on our upbringing—including what our mother ate before we were born—our genes, our culture, our personal history, our health conditions, our expectations, the context, and changing fashions.

I like the smell of the parking garage in my parents' apartment building, but my daughter Eleanor really does not like it.

Is there a smell that you love that other people mostly don't like—or vice versa?

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