12.15.2006,5:03 AM
My nose on a ride
Ah, the smell of freshly made tortillas waft across bumper-to-bumper traffic in evening rush hour.........

I've always supected I'm part canine. Having an extraordinarily keen sense of smell, I often detect scents others don't, or before they do. Sometimes I find myself with head upturned, nostrils flared, trying to catch more of a odor to identify. Or to capture more of it to enjoy. Sometimes I shake my head and blow my nose to get rid it in my nostrils and mouth.

Some odors elicit strong visceral responses. Perfumes, all of them, make me nauseous. I can't walk down store aisles containing perfumes, including laundry soap. I hold my breath when I pick out laundry soap to buy, and then try to clear my nostrils of what entered anyway as I hurry away. I have to move from my seat on the train or bus if someone sits next to me wearing perfume; I'll gasp with my stomach lurching within seconds. That favorite oil of the hippy days, patchoulli, will have me wretching in no time.

Some smells I find sweet, or having some type of heavy and distinctive taste. Oil is one; it smells 'sweet', 'sour' or 'bitter', depending on the type of oil. I love the smell of car/bike shops. They 'taste oily sweet' (some one should develop a cologne of it). Wood shavings also elicit tastes. The smell of my lover is distinctively wonderful, sometimes earthy and calming, other times exciting.

Somehow the sensory network for taste and smell cross over more than usual and are stronger than normal. I can smell by tasting and vice versa. I can smell (and taste) weather, too. Hours before an unexpected coastal storm hit deep inland (>400 miles away) I smelled and tasted the Gulf. When I mentioned it to the others I was with, no one else could. I found it incredulous at the time that they couldn't smell and taste it. And they thought I was nuts.

The doctors hypothesized that this heightened sense may have been induced by several years of tonsilitis and adenoid infections as a child. Could that explain why I used to stuff blankets around my bedroom door as a child to block the permeating smell of some cheeses my parents ate? So I didn't react with nausea to the point that I either had to sit near the toilet or open all my windows and stick my head out for fresh air. Skunk smell leaves me gagging and with a headache. I'll stick menthol on my nostrils to mask smells. Is it some form of synesthesia?

Who knows and frankly I don't care anymore what the reason is. I just live with it.

Now, on a bike.........I take my nose for a ride and it gathers in all the smells we go by. Sometimes they linger, sometimes they change so fast its one impact after another. Riding a bike with my nose is a heyday, sometimes like giving candy to a little kid.

The smells of a morning's commute: mud in the creeks, smoke from home fires, fish and algae lake smell, faint coffee aroma from Starbucks, freshly baked donuts, heavy petroleum......

A favorite smell during half of my commute home is charbroiled beef. I'll leave my faceshield up and let it fill my helmet with nostrils flared to drink it in. Such a mouthwatering scent, and I'm reduced to Pavlov's dog on a bike.

The cool temps of the early morning and evening condense smells because the volatile oils don't dissipate as quickly as they do in the heat and sun. Ride through clouds of various smells: leaf mold and fallen leaves, tree sap, bird droppings where they congregated, mud and water in creeks and lakes, the heavy acridness from roadside carcasses[1], various food smells wafting from restaurants (love the smell of pancakes)..........

The olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) systems in the body are the most conserved chemosensory mechanisms across all species. They are also the most basic and inherited methods of communication, feeding information to the brain about surroundings and even other creatures or people encountered. Pheromones of many kinds are ubiquitous in nearly all species; they couple with the other senses providing information about others of their own species. It was thought until recently that humans did not share the same capacity for pheromones that other animals do, but new research provides evidence pointing to the contrary.

What amazes me is the transformation of specific odors into electrical signals that speed along a series of neurons, transfering from one type to another like navigating a busy city intersection. The neural highway splits into several roads heading to various parts of the brain where the signals are processed, ultimately telling the brain the odor identity, triggering associated memories or storing it as a memory, and exciting the amydala, which elicits an often instant response. All this results in our own personal perception of odors around us. In summary, odors are very stimulating.

My nose likes to go for rides.

[1] Two proteins are primarily responsible for the distinctive smell of dead flesh. They are appropriately named cadaverine and putricine.
posted by Macrobe
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