(Or occasionally like sewage. If that happens, RUN.)
The aroma of the Skwon in my hand as I take a morning walk in the fresh-smelling air .... Mike, your posts are always fascinating, hilarious and now offer a new meditation practice. The Science of the Sowden Skwon Method of Meditating (while walking outside and eating said Skwon) is my new favorite practice! (Substitutes “Skwon” for “Om”....)
The ozone smell when it rains is also a similar smell that astronauts report in space. There are theories, and one of the prevailing ones is that this is the smell of stars being born and dying. So when it next rains, and you breath deep, you are smelling life or death universal.
Fascinating read, Mike. Thanks for running down all the science. Our sense of smell is such a curious and powerful force that influences our behavior in such subtle ways. Just believing you're smelling fresh air is enough to change the chemistry in your brain.
We can all agree scones are fabulous so that is all that matters. I am one-third of the way through The Nature Fix and loving it. I came to it through Chris Morgan's podcast, The Wild. This article is perfectly timed as we in Baltimore are having more afternoon thunderstorms, which is the best part of summer.
I came by for a cerebral snack, & my grey matter got a NY strip with a Cobb salad plus champagne. An auspicious start, I would say.
Deep breaths. I took a Tai Ch'i class back in the 80's, & Qi Gong as well. Both Tai Ch'i & Qi Gong teach the student to be aware of their breathing, to monitor it, the depth, the volume, etc. Do we have to meditate to breathe properly ? Anyway, I need to find a class. Could. Not. Hurt.
My comment is not so much about smell as that I went back and read your great 'staring' post. And I wondered if you knew about Charles Bonnet syndrome.
My mother was going blind from Macular Degeneration and on the bad days, her brain would supply images for whatever she was looking at. Entirely wrong images but it was sifting through its catalogue and trying to provide AN image. So Mum could be looking at a river rippling in the wind and her brain would supply patterned men's ties. She thought she was going mad until her eye specialist explained it to her and then it became a thing of some humour and she would enjoy telling us what she had 'seen' that day.
On the subject of air - OMG yes. Fresh, clean sea and country air! Enlivens me a thousand times compared to breathing city air. Thank you for THE best, most thinking posts, Mike. And for your humour.
Every time I give a presentation on the health benefits of walking, someone asks me about forest bathing. (The compounds the provide health benefits are the phytoncides trees produce to protect themselves against insects and disease.) At one a few years ago someone asked if grasslands could provide similar benefits. I don’t see why not! But I’m still waiting for that research to show up.
Annabel Streets’s book “52 Ways to Walk” has so much delightful research and some of it is about how air is ionized around running water, especially waterfalls, and how that can lower cortisol. Get thee to a waterfall!
My mother always said that the smell of air after a rain was the smell of worms. I could never decide if I liked that connotation or not.
When I was in college one night I was walking across campus and all of a sudden everywhere smelled like canned dog food. This had never happened before. I truly thought I was going crazy. But, no, it simply turned out there was a Purina factory in town that I never knew about and when the wind turned in just the right way our entire campus smelled like dog food.
Several years later I was living in Seattle, one neighborhood over from a Entenman's factory. They make all sorts of sugar-laden, low quality baked goods of the kind that you buy at a gas station. Not usually my cup of tea, but when the wind was right the whole neighborhood smelled like butter and powdered sugar and flour and just a hint of cinnamon.
Now, there are any number of reasons to prefer Seattle, WA over Richmond, IN (where I went to college), but all of them pale, viscerally, before the beauty that was the smell of that cheap pastry factory compared to the smell of dog food. And I will never not associate those smells with those places in my mind first and foremost, before many of the other experiences I ever had in either place.
My mother had a classroom full of particularly smelly (as in too many beans in their digestive systems) 10-year-olds. They naturally felt the need to overreact when any odor hit their noses. She started telling them that skunks always smell their own scent first. Not sure that was true but great for silencing 10-year-olds.
Thanks for this enjoyable read. Your inquisitiveness is fanciful and perhaps contagious. A couple of observations from a guy who overanalyzes things though...this will become clear from the length of the comment.
(1) I agree with you wholeheartedly about the feeling of being outside. It is great. Here's the question though is it (a) because inside air is so dreadful -- I think the dance between our primitive fast and advanced slow brains is exactly where the joy of life resides in the between
(2) the smell experience outdoors is the same!!! Maybe just something varied from the doldrums of predictable smells indoors which we just get used to? I figure this is WHY we feel so great when we bake gingersnaps or molasses cookies -- escape from the doldrums even before we eat them
(3) My broader premise is we are simply cool creatures with two brains (a) back one I call lizard brain. It is constructed inside out just like a paper mache ball and is just hard-wired to our senses -- nothing so different than other animal brains, fast and built for impulse & instinct and limited to the basic functions of survival. (b) frontal cortex built for analysis & art and whatnot -- all the cool stuff about us like love and empathy
One more unrelated question -- Actiph water -- clever name -- is this sciencey newsletter advocating alkaline water or was it just on sale :)
Hey Mike,. It’s not exactly what you were to talking about, but here in a different part of Australia I have a kind of cultural synaesthesia of my own. In the height of summer in February, when the earth is as dry as it can be, and the leaves are crumbling into powder, I can hardly bear to go into the bush. There’s such an a all pervasive sense of menace from bushfire that’s it makes me almost paranoid.
This is such an interesting read. Especially this point
"Less well-known is the fact that our sense of smell is also known to decrease with a drop in air pressure, says Hirsch. "
There's definitely a theory that wines taste better when the pressure is high. This explains why!
This is a lovely piece again thanks, Mike.
This is a bit of a tangent, but for some years I've been using ideas of oxygen, air, and breath to try to reimagine my work. I was trained as a respiratory physiotherapist in the UK but came to philosophy as a way to get beyond the limits of biomedicine which tends to see breathing mechanistically. I started with the question "when does an oxygen molecule actually become part of me? Five feet away in this room? In my trachea? In my alveoli? In my haemoglobin... my muscles?" Things have spiralled from there into a lot of posthuman ideas that have really helped me to think beyond the limits of what I'm supposed to concentrate on: photosynthesising algae, air conditioning units, indigenous cosmologies of life, the right to clean air, the therapeutic properties of air for airplanes, without losing a focus on the pathology of chronic emphysema, pulmonary gas exchange, and respiratory failure. Air is certainly an amazing thing.
Thank you so much - love the way you write! Uplifting, encouraging, fascinating and fun. Much appreciated!
There's a common saying here in Arizona that the "desert smells like rain."
Rain in the desert is a special thing, and many of us desert-lovers credit this smell as one of our absolute favorites in life—right up there with the smell of just cooked bacon and that one brand of sun-tanning lotion our friend's hot mom used while sunbathing topless in her backyard back when we were in fifth grade.
So you'll often see a hiker stopped at a creosote bush along the trail, cupping her hands around its tiny green leaves to get a quick dose of that magnifiscent smell (sorry, it had to be done). If the plant has gotten some recent moisture, those leaves will immediately transport your brain to a recent rainstorm; otherwise, gently rubbing them between your fingers a bit will perform the same trick, often enhancing the experience.
Anyway, here's a bit more on this phenom here in my beloved Sonoran Desert: