Thursday, 5 July 2012

Stroll boldly through the pig pavilion of life!

Despite the vast collection of smells that inhabit your memory, you can’t invoke any of them like an image or a song. It’s not until vapour from something aromatic wafts into your nasal cavity that a smell is either stored or recognised, sometimes stirring potent memories and responses. 

Like taste, smell is a chemical sense and it seems well-sampled aromas (up to 10,000 of them in humans) remain stable and accurate in the memory, unlike apocryphal tales and fishing stories.

So fundamental is this cognitive ability, that it now appears loss of sense of smell in older people could be an early sign of Alzheimer's.

For humans, smell is both primal and aesthetic, encouraging us to breed and avoid what makes us ill, whilst all the time enjoying the source of bouquet, perfumes, scents, fragrances, essences and aromas and their emotional associations.

While we seem hardwired for certain behavioural responses to scents and odours, the greater part of olfactory learning is through life’s experiences, including inherited aversions and emotional associations, so it’s no accident that emotive language evolved around nasty odours – stink, pong, stench, foul, fetid, rancid, putrid, reek etc.

When it comes to wine, a decent array of olfactory reference points is therefore also a function of time and our willingness to stroll boldly through the pig pavilion of life.

Few of us have ever fired our forbear’s flintlocks at the feral cats in the tack room at the hunt club, fallen from the saddle into the leaf litter of the forest floor, trampled through the gooseberry bushes, soaked our socks in a peat bog, napped rocks or tarred and feathered any enemies, let alone done enough hay carting to distinguish between the smell of oaten and lucerne hay – and yet whether we’ve been there or not, once we have a decent olfactory reference to the Loire Valley or back lanes of Pokolbin, we are thereafter able to engage a form of sensory geolocation or GPS.

According to the CSIRO the human nose combines versatility and performance unmatched by any scientific instrument but in future don’t be so quick to drag your dog away from its analysis of the footpath – with over 200 million receptors to interpret their world (as opposed to our meagre 5 million) it can read like a Dan Brown novel.

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