Life Without Smell May Not Be Worth It

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Researchers removed their ability to smell by using a chemical that is the chief ingredient in an anticonvulsive drug prescribed for humans. One of the drug's side effects is that the patients lose the sense of smell. We could live longer and convulse less, but what is the point? Andre Breton, the Surrealist poet, wrote in the 1920s, "Beauty will be convulsive, or not at all." He was speaking about the future, without guessing that humanity might choose to live longer without smelling anything, or moving very much.

In worms, as in people, smell is related to food, it is our very first sense, and was vital when we lived on the forest floor. A reduced calorie intake is proven to prolong life, so it's possible that we smell less keenly when there is no food around, and so we live longer in the hope that one day a large ripe round cheese will roll at us and open up all our senses like an olfactory fan.

We humans are poorly equipped for smell. We experience a mere fraction of what a dog's sniffing universe is composed of.

My dog went to heaven her first time in New Orleans — the layers of funk made her so excited she didn't sleep the whole time. Later she told me, it was an encyclopedia of smells you'd need a million years of brilliant poets to find a language for. She told me this in dog, with her nostrils trembling. She chooses not to speak human, and from an olfactory point of view, I can see why. Human language itself may be involved in this smell versus longevity thing.

Our oldest sense has the poorest descriptive vocabulary, and it has become more impoverished the more our language developed.

Was language itself a purposeful flight from scent in order to prolong our lives?

Longevity and language may be identical — you can't speak and eat at the same time. You can smell something alluring and viciously desirable, but if you keep talking it will roll past you like a heavenly cheese that will be eaten by taciturn creatures with more teeth and better noses.

Does language prolong life while taking deep whiffs of the beloved just kills you? Yes. Enough said — that pizza you're cooling, dear, smells divine.

The dog, she's going nuts, and taking me with her. Mmmmm. To die for.

Andrei Codrescu is a long time commentator with NPR.

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