A Natural History of the Senses

I can’t remember how I fell into this particular rabbit hole of inquiry, perhaps it was after a memory swarmed to the surface of my mind after I caught a faint scent and began wondering why smell short circuits directly to the memory. Indeed, smell was the sense that I most enjoyed reading about if my notes are any indication, although touch had some interesting digressions about tattoos (apparently Tsar Nicholas II, King George V, and Lady Randolph Churchill were tatto’ed Victorians, it being the “thing to do” when one was in Japan).

This is a beautifully written book jammed full of interesting threads of information. Some highlights:

  • “Smell is the mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation.”
  • “The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak. Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.”
  • “In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues, but no closer, and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without name, a sacredness.”
  • “When the olfactory bulb detects something, it signals the cerebral cortex and sends a message straight into the limbic system, a mysterious, ancient, and intensely emotional section of our brain in which we feel, lust, and invent.  Unlike the other sense, smell needs no interpreter. The effect is immediate and undiluted by language, thought, or translation.”
  • “Weightlessness makes astronauts lose taste and smell in space. In the absence of gravity, molecules cannot be volatile, so few of them get into our noses deeply enough to register as odors.”
  • “Smell was the first of our senses, and it was so successful that in time the small lump of olfactory tissue atop the nerve cord grew into a brain. Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from olfactory stalks. We think because we smelled.”