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Our Sense of Smell: How Important Is It?

Updated on January 27, 2018
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Anne has a BSc in Applied Psychology and qualifications in counselling, CBT & mindfulness. She teaches mindfulness workshops and courses.

anyone smell smoke?
anyone smell smoke? | Source
Tea or coffee?
Tea or coffee? | Source
That delicious anticipation
That delicious anticipation | Source

Smell: Considered a minor sense.

Smell may be considered a minor sense because it is not immediately essential for survival.

  • Without sight, we could be in immediate danger of bumping into or tripping over things or walking out in front of a bus.
  • Without hearing, we may not be able to hear danger approach (in the form of that oncoming bus, perhaps)
  • Touch allows us to tell if something is hot, for instance, so that we don’t suffer serious burns.
  • Taste and smell on the other hand, don’t appear to have the same essential function in keeping us safe.

But maybe we need to look at this assumption a bit more closely:

Anyone smell something burning...?

When there’s a fire, our first indication that there may be something wrong is often when we smell smoke.

The same can be said of a gas leak.

When food has gone off, we can usually tell by its smell before we ever get it to our mouth.

So smell is in fact essential for survival.

But there’s even more to it than that:

Apart from telling us when a food may not be safe to eat, our sense of smell can also warn us off foods that have previously made us ill.

This is called Conditioned Taste Aversion, or the Garcia Effect.

Tea Tasters

Smell and taste work closely together.

Take the example of the Tea Taster. He/she make their living by being able to taste very subtle differences between teas. But block their sense of smell, and they cannot even tell the difference between tea and coffee.

This is because the odorants from the tea are pumped into the nasal cavity, enhancing the taste.

In fact, it would appear from this example that smell is just as important as taste where food is concerned.

Enjoyment of food is an important part of everyday life. How many of us daydream about what to have for lunch or dinner while driving the car, cleaning the house, sitting in a boring lecture, or doing some other mundane activity that doesn’t require our full attention?

Without the sense of smell, most of that enjoyment would be lost. All food would taste bland and uninteresting.

Food is often bound up with social activity, so going for a meal with a friend, a big family dinner at Christmastime, or a romantic meal for two would all lose some of their pleasure if we couldn’t really taste what we were eating.

What’s cooking?

Distance Smell also enhances our enjoyment of food. That delicious anticipation, when we’re hungry and walk into a kitchen where a meal is being prepared, would be lost if we didn’t have our sense of smell.

Smell can also have an effect of our emotions. The smell of freshly cut grass can bring back memories of the long summer days of childhood, and evoke feelings of nostalgia. The smell of incense can evoke fear in some and pleasure in others, depending on their previous experience. Even fear itself has a smell of its own.

Smell also plays a part in our interpersonal relationships.

Although the part that pheromones might or might not play still needs more research, from experience we know that people can have their own, personal odour. This has nothing to do with perfumes or aftershaves, but is a not-unpleasant bodily odour that is personal to the individual in question. It seems to be more noticeable in some than others, but the closer, physically, we get to someone, the more we notice it.

Even day-old babies will turn their head to the smell of their mother’s breast milk over the breast milk of a stranger.

In Western society, we wash away or mask our bodily orders, avoid breathing in someone’s face, and consider it impolite to sniff one another’s face or hair.

But in Arab countries, it is seen as suspicious to avoid breathing on another’s face, as is avoiding eye contact in Western society, and Eskimos will sniff one another’s face or hair in greeting.

The smell of a partner’s sexually aroused body can cause arousal in the other, and it has even been found that male underarm odour can influence the menstrual cycle of women

So, in conclusion, it would seem that smell is not in fact a minor, and actually plays an important role in our lives.

A Gift from me to you: FREE Mindfulness Meditation


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