Smelling is a skill. Unless you make perfume for a living, you probably don’t know how to smell. Here are what I consider to be the basics of good olfactory practice.
Assume that everything has an odor. Assume that every single physical object around you emits volatile compounds that you, personally, can detect. This may not be true, but that doesn’t matter. Pretend, for now, that it is. You’ll learn faster this way.
Practice good sniffing. First and foremost, good sniffing means putting your nose right up against the object you want to sniff. Maybe you’re more comfortable picking things up with your hands and holding them a few inches from your face — most of us are — but that’s poor form. Most odorous compounds are heavier than air, and your nose needs to be where the molecules are to ingest them. Plus, when you pick something up, especially a small bit of something, you’re going to be smelling your hand. So pretend you’re a dog. Get down on your hands and knees, if you have to, and bring your muzzle right to the object, until you can feel its surface with the tip of your nose. Then close your eyes, and sniff.
To dislodge more of the smelly snuff, try a sharp exhalation through your nostrils right before you sniff. If you watch dogs sniffing, you’ll see that they do this all the time. It makes a surprisingly large difference.
You’ll also find more smells by scratching things first, rubbing them, or otherwise disturbing their surfaces.
Associate with what you smell. I recommend narrating your thoughts, either by speaking or by writing them down. Let your mind wander, and don’t worry about making any sense. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives are all fair game. So are images, sounds, and dance moves. Treat the smell like an inkblot test. Take a sniff, and say whatever comes to mind. Give it at least ten seconds, but thirty is better. If you haven’t named five things the smell reminds you of, you’re not done smelling it yet.
Maybe it’s not clear to you that you’re smelling anything at all. Doesn’t matter. Everything has an odor, remember? You’re having an olfactory experience of some kind, even if you haven’t recognized it yet, so just start associating. You’ll learn about what you smell as you go.
“Good” and “bad” are not smells. They’re mostly predictions about whether something is safe to eat. When you judge that something smells “good”, just pass right by that thought, and keep on associating. Same for anything that smells “bad”. If you get stuck at this step, reach for the specific (un)pleasant associations that come to mind while you’re smelling the object.
Don’t worry so much about which things smell like which other things. For example, maybe you’ve just sniffed unwashed socks, and thereby invited a familiar compound into your olfactory system. During its stay, you happened upon an association with parmesan cheese. There really is a chemical similarity between your socks and parmesan cheese — namely butyric acid — but what matters is not that the two items smell similar. What matters is that the experience reminds you of parmesan cheese. If you’re always searching for the known relative of a smell, you’ll miss all the scents you’ve never named before. Recognize that “parmesan cheese” has come to mind while smelling, and leave it at that.
Now that you know the basics, try going for a smell walk. A smell walk is just a walk, but instead of looking at stuff all the time, you relate to your environment primarily through scent. Here are a few more tips for smell walks in particular.
- When you arrive at a new location, take note of the background smells.
- Elicit three smells per location.
- While moving, watch out for momentary smells.
- Bring a bottle of water. Your nasal passages need to be a little damp to catch the particles.
- Bring tissues. Some of the particles will irritate your nose.
- Bring friends!
- When there’s an especially interesting smell, invite others to share it with you.
I really enjoy smell walks. They feel indulgent and exciting to me, and I love watching the constant discovery and surprise of my friends when I bring others along. There’s a lot of intimacy in smelling.
I’ve done enough smell walks in my neighborhood that I think I can probably estimate my location to the nearest street corner (maybe better) just by smell, if I’m within a few blocks of my house. I think my nose is about as good as average, based on my experiences taking people on smell walks. If that sounds unlikely to you, you’re probably drastically underestimating how good you are at smelling. Humans have much better noses than they tend to think.
Scent is so neglected in human experience. I think it’s largely because we walk on two legs, and use our hands to examine things. We just don’t spend much time down where the smells are.
It makes me sad, because there’s a whole world of olfactory experience that’s never instantiated. If I ask someone about their day, people will tell me what they saw, and maybe what they heard, but almost nobody tells me what they smelled.
And if someone does mention smell, it’s almost always because something smelled either disgusting or delicious. The world is so full of smells, of so many kinds, but hardly anybody notices. I’d like it if more people engaged with the world through scent.