It is an odd but important symbol of how humans now sense the world around them: To decide whether the milk in the fridge is drinkable, we are more likely to look at the expiry date stamped on the carton than to stick our nose in the opening and take a whiff. This visual dominance is so pervasive that while we can easily name an orange or lemon from its appearance, we struggle to name the same familiar entities from their smell. Don’t take my word for it. You can test yourself at home. Take some familiar odors found in the kitchen — banana, peanut butter, chocolate, coffee — and ask your nearest and dearest to close their eyes and name those scents. Without being able to see the source, people struggle to name even the most familiar of scents. The impact is astounding: Each year, one third of the food intended for human consumption is lost or wasted; and a regrettable amount of that food waste is because of an over-emphasis on the appearance of food.
Our olfactory limitations are not due to an innate inability to detect or distinguish smells. Humans have such keen noses that we can track a 30-foot-long scent trail of chocolate through a field. We can detect the compound ethyl mercaptan (the odor that gives gasoline its distinctive smell) at concentrations equivalent to three drops diluted in an Olympic-size swimming pool. And moms can recognize their own children from others by smell alone within an hour after they are born. Yet we value our noses so little that 53% of young adults would rather give up their sense of smell than their phone or laptop. They do not appreciate what anosmics (people without a sense of smell) know only too well: without smell, our food isn’t as pleasurable to eat, we are a little less safe and the quality of our social relationships declines.
We have not always been this way. So why does this disconnect between our ability to smell and our ability to talk about this vital sense exist? Our culture has much to do with it. A study I recently coauthored found that hunter-gatherer communities in the Malay Peninsula find odors as easy to talk about as colors, yet for your average Westerner our olfactory life goes past unnoticed and unremarked. Matters are different for the Jahai and Semaq Beri people of the tropical rainforests of the Malay Peninsula. There are only around 1,000 speakers of Jahai today, and not much more than double that for the Semaq Beri. In their lush rainforest surroundings every breath is redolent with the humid, musty smell of the soil; the putrid fumes of nature decomposing; the fragrant wafts of flowers exuding their perfumes.
But odors are not just background notes — they also organize day-to-day life for these communities. According to the Jahai, certain smells can make you sick while others can cure. Several different species of game animal are not washed in the river at the same time or cooked on the same fire because their distinct smells shouldn’t mix. And brother and sister should not sit too close to each other because if their odors mingle it is a type of incest. People manage and monitor the odors around them. Their heightened odor consciousness is also revealed in their elaborate vocabulary for different qualities of smells. For example, haʔɛ̃t (pronounced something like “huh-ed”) is the Jahai word for the unpleasant smell common to tiger, shrimp paste, sap of rubber tree, rotten meat, feces, musk gland of deer, wild pig, burnt hair, old sweat, and lighter gas. It’s a distinct smell from cŋɛs (“chung-ess”), which refers to the smell of petrol, smoke and bat droppings — a stinging sort of smell. And distinct again from pʔus (“puh-oos”) smells associated with old dwellings, some species of mushroom, cooked cabbage, or stale food.
In contrast to the Jahai, we are increasingly detached from our environments. English-speakers know less and less about the flora and fauna around them, marked by, for example, fewer and less precise references to trees. (Would you recognize an oak from a maple, or a Douglas Fir from a Balsam Fir?) And that’s talking about sight, a sense we emphasize.
This change in biological knowledge appeared around the time of the Industrial Revolution, when many people shifted from rural to urban living and abruptly reduced their interactions with the natural world. In a similar vein, anthropologists have suggested our cultural anosmia results from our “deodorized” modern life from which we banish — not just neglect — our sense of smell. We believe the perfect banana should be precisely yellow and curved just right, but few of us bother to notice whether it is fragrantly edible — and fewer still could describe their preferred banana smell. We buy roses for their faultless petals, even though our breeding quest for achieving this visual beauty has meant roses have lost their delectable scent. Our favorite TV shows feature cooking and baking, but we’re spending ever less time in the kitchen practicing our own culinary skills.
All is not lost. We do not need to revert to being hunter-gatherers to hone our olfactory abilities. We may not become quite so eloquent or attuned to odors, but merely smelling odors repeatedly and deliberately can increase your sense of smell, and practicing talk about odors can likewise refine your olfactory language. All it needs is for you to value your sense of smell, and reflect on what it might be trying to tell you.